The year is 1977. The setting is Los Angeles, when porn is beginning to become a big thing. Two disparate men, Holland March (Ryan Gosling), an alcoholic Private Investigator who doesn’t overly exert himself in his line of work, and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a cynical hardman who’s paid to beat people up for a living, cross paths and find themselves teaming up to track down an elusive ‘Amelia’, who may or may not be linked to the mysterious death of Misty Mountains, a high-profile pornstar who died a few days previously.
The Nice Guys really is a conflation of genres. The neo-noir mystery driving the plot has elements of Chinatown, yet the kooky curveballs that are thrown the Nice Guys in question echo something from Wes Anderson’s imagination. There are also generous doses of comedy, whether they be in the form of March’s booze-fuelled incompetence, Healy’s casual deliveries of violence, the seedy underworld of porn that the men discover, or the convenient way vital clues to the mystery fall into the men’s laps, when, in real life, things would never be this easy.
The cocktail of mystery-laced-with-comedy was also employed in 2016’s Zootropolis, which, at the time of writing this review, remains my favourite film of the year. Like Zootropolis, The Nice Guys makes the combination work. I admit, I had my doubts when I clocked the Odd Couple setup of Crowe and Gosling on film posters for the film, but the chemistry between the two is brilliant. They play off each other naturally, and their line-readings, aided with deadpan facial expressions, works a charm. In this movie, Ryan Gosling sports a ridiculous moustache, which he still manages to look phenomenally sexy in. Ryan is one of those men who is completely at ease in front of the camera; and that's where he should remain: in front of it. (I say this because his directorial debut, Lost River, was legit one of the most bloated pieces of bollocks I've seen). Whilst his March is gallivants around L.A., it's left to surly Healy to do all the grunt work, which Crowe handles with aplomb. His low pitched voice and Gladiator-let-loose-on-the-carbs-esque physique indicate he is not one to be messed with. The polar opposites of the two characters and their approach to the case (for March, it's an easy way to swindle some money, whereas Healy actually wishes to solve it) forms the basis such engaging comedy.
The thriller part is less robust. Without giving away any spoilers, I was able to guess the culprit fairly early on, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say nuance is Shane Black’s forte. In that sense, I preferred 2013’s The Heat, which sported a similar construct of a by-the-book detective and a maverick cop having to work together to solve a case, because the twist there was harder to guess. But a contrived plot-twist doesn’t have to be a deal breaker; 21 Jump Street was also fairly predictable, yet that, as with The Nice Guys, transcended its genre due to the easy charm of the two leads, and how they manage to overcome personality differences to work together.
The trump card that The Nice Guys has, that The Heat, 21 Jump Street and Zootropolis all don’t, however, is a third player: Angourie Rice as March’s 13-year-old daughter, Holly. Holly is a smart kid, who has to raise her dad more than the other way round, but never feels like a
precocious so-and-so. Rice plays Holly with the same kind of innocent likeability that Elle Fanning injected into Aurora in Maleficent, full of winning smiles, so that, when she feels let down by someone, we, too, mirror her emotions. Rice also brings out the best in the two leads; Gosling genuinely exuded parental affection when he interacted with Rice, and it is the relationship between those two that gives the plot a plausible emotional factor that the audience can engage with. The addition of Crowe’s character as a sort of of surrogate second parent to Holly was also delicately handled, without feeling heavy-handed.
Ultimately, The Nice Guys does exactly what it says on the tin: makes for an entertaining piece of Friday night fluff, carried by two actors admirably playing against type. That’s not to say it's a flawless film; as mentioned, the storyline is pedestrian, and the way underage children were constantly being placed in inappropriate adult situations was unsettling. It’s won’t linger long in the memory after watching. But, Ryan Gosling has managed to go some way to erase the memory of the last two movies I've seen that he's been involved with, that smug Big Short, and the hilariously bad Lost River, whereas Russell Crowe has been in a fair few weighty plodders of late, and will surely have relished the chance to smile for a change. And when the performers in a film are having such a great time, it’s difficult for the audience not to do the same.