The Nice Guys

May 26, 2016
Ryan Gosling & Russell Crowe in 'The Nice Guys' (2016)
Ryan Gosling & Russell Crowe in 'The Nice Guys' (2016)

Take Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, a sassy blonde teenager, and a salacious story that revolves around the Los Angeles porn industry circa 1977, and you have The Nice Guys. It’s not so much a formula film as half a dozen formulas that director, Shane Black, has mixed together to create a surprisingly fizzy cocktail.

For starters there is the allure of L.A. crime, which comes to prominence with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and reaches an apogee of violent, black absurdity in the novels of James Elroy and Elmore Leonard. Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, a down-at-heel private dick who spends most of his time investigating whatever he can find in a bottle. Russell Crowe is Jackson Healy, an enforcer who beats people up on a strictly professional basis. Although their first encounter doesn’t play out well, leaving March with a spiral fracture of the left radius, the two men will combine forces to pursue a case that is generating a trail of murders.

This gives us a buddy film, in which two or more mismatched characters form a mutually beneficial partnership. Think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and about a thousand other movies, including the female answer to a largely masculine genre, Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991). In most buddy films male bonding takes the place of male-female romance. Despite the homosexual overtones it is usually portrayed as sexless love between blokes – a so-called “bromance”. Black is a buddy movie specialist, having scripted the Lethal Weapon series, and pursued a similar tack in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), known as the film that got Robert Downey Jr. back on board.

To make matters more interesting, Holland has a precocious 13-year-old daughter called Holly (Angourie Rice, from Western Australia) who wants to be part of the action and seems much smarter than our two detectives. She even does most of the driving.

There are risque implications in using such a young girl in a part where she has to mingle in the milieu of so-called Adult films. It wasn’t like this for Nancy Drew, the iconic teenage girl detective, who starred in a series of movies that began in the 1930s. As the films got closer to the present day Nancy’s pubescent sexuality became an issue. Earlier this year a new Nancy Drew television series, with a “non-caucasian” lead, was pitched unsuccessfully to CBS. Its failure may have been assisted by the fact that the actress who plays Nancy is 36 years old.

The Nice Guys is yet another movie that wallows in nostalgia for the 1970s. The best of the bunch are probably David O. Russell’s American Hustle (2013), and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), but there are dozens to choose from. The fashion, the cars, the furniture – and most crucially, the soundtrack – are all in 70s mode. From that musical pot-pourri of a decade we hear everything from the Temptations singing Papa was a Rollin’ Stone to Kiss belting out Rock N Roll All Nite. On Holly’s bedroom wall there are posters for the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Blondie, suggesting she is clued up on the new wave – although with no trace of punk in her personal style.

The American porn industry of the 70s is a cultural phenomenon that has been recreated in a dozen mainstream movies, the most notable being Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). It’s an underground world of sleaze, drugs and crime that always allows filmmakers to indulge themselves with a lavish party scene.

Black has taken another leaf from Anderson’s book with a plot full of twists and conspiracy theories reminiscent of the latter’s Inherent Vice (2014) – itself based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon, America’s undisputed king of convoluted conspiracies.

If you hadn’t guessed by now I better mention that The Nice Guys is a comedy, although the humour is as mixed as the rest of the movie, blending slapstick, satire, some wry dialogue and that brutal, black stuff perfected by the Coen Brothers. I didn’t stop to count the in-jokes and references to other films.

The plot is so confusing I’m not sure I’d understand it after repeated viewings. For much of the time our heroes – for want of a better word – are on the trail of a girl called Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who seems to have made a porn movie as a protest against air pollution. It’s also a protest against her mother (Kim Basinger), an official with the job of prosecuting Detroit car manufacturers who cheat on pollution controls. Amelia thinks mum is secretly on Detroit’s payroll.

Everybody who has anything to do with the porn flick is being murdered, although it’s never made clear what dangerous revelations it contains. A hired psycho called John Boy (Matt Bomer) – in homage to 70s TV series, The Waltons – is piling up corpses, while two other goons are out to discourage Healy and March’s involvement.

Crowe is in fine form as the softly-spoken brute who likes to think of himself as a sensitive man. Gosling is a boozy shambles, more interested in making a dollar than helping good triumph over evil. His breakthrough moments always occur as the result of accidents. Both actors give deft, relaxed performances, treating the movie as a romp, not an Oscar vehicle. The Nice Guys is crude, funny, fast-paced and virtually incoherent. What’s not to like?

The Nice Guys
Directed by Shane Black
Written by Shane Black & Anthony Bagarozzi
Starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Margaret Qualley
USA, rated MA 15+, 116 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 28th May, 2016.