The Nice Guys, despite all of its sliminess (both literally and figuratively, as the plot revolves around a missing porn actress and the pollution of the air) is a decidedly moral movie about niceness and decency. After all, it begins with an act of decency juxtaposed with debauchery: a young kid looking at a nudie magazine while drinking a glass of milk when a car bursts through his home and wrecks below. The victim? The same woman he was just admiring in his magazine, displayed identically and bloodied and dying. As she dies, he covers her naked body with his shirt.
Shane Black’s latest buddy crime caper pairs up Holland March (Ryan Gosling), the kind of sleazy (but licensed!) P.I. that takes a missing husband case for an old client even as he sees the urn sitting above the fireplace, with Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), an enforcer-for-hire who, ironically enough, is the straight man to Gosling’s goofball. We’re introduced to Healy through a gruff voiceover followed by a brass-knuckled beatdown of a young guy attempting to woo a much younger girl. Here he’s in the right, but we soon get the idea, when he’s punching March in the face a scene later, that he’s down to beat up anyone if the money’s right. However, even as Healy breaks March’s arm, he does so with an air of civility and almost geniality – after all, these are “the nice guys.”
And this is how the two meet. Soon they’re on the hunt for Amelia, who is somehow connected to the missing porn actress mentioned above, and the whole thing is soon wrapped in aChinatown-esque bow of capitalistic corruption. Unfortunately, the script isn’t tight enough to reach the perfection of the plotting and pacing in the labyrinth that is Chinatown, but that’s not really what Black is going for. This is a character driven, noir-tinged comedy at its core. I say noir-tinged because one never feels that fatalistic drive and inescapable doom that surrounds all great noirs, but it certainly never fools the viewer into expecting that everything will be just fine by the time it fades to black.
This isn’t to sayThe Nice Guys isn’t better or smarter than your average summer comedy. Not a line of dialogue feels wasted, and Gosling and Crowe play off one another perfectly. Gosling steals the show, getting a chance to show the world what brilliant instincts he has as a physical comedian. As a comedy alone, the film is funnier than any you’re likely to see this summer. But there’s more to Gosling’s performance, as with the film as a whole, than just absurd comedy – there’s a constant melancholy behind every moment of Crowe and Gosling’s performances and the film follows these two broken men stumbling towards some sort of redemption in the form of March’s 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) who serves as the movie’s conscience. Because the world around them certainly doesn’t have one. Black has chosen the issues that 1977 Los Angeles is facing deliberately – the gas crisis, pollution and environmental problems, capitalistic corruption – because they are all problems that America still faces to this day. At one point the half-drunk March says of the futility of his profession, “After two days on a case the only thing that’s changed is that the sun has gone down twice more.” And what have we done about it?
Maybe nothing gets done, but Healy and March’s redemption comes in trying to do the right thing. This redemption through Holly, who also nearly steals the show, along with the richness of character makes The Nice Guys far more than just a comedy. There is real, human empathy and pathos here – and perhaps the best quality of the film is Black’s ability to handle tonal shifts deftly and wisely. The film is darkly hilarious and hilarious and hilarious until it isn’t. There’s a reverence for both life and death that gives The Nice Guys a heart and conscience to go along with the laughs. The funniest movie of the year, and maybe the best.