The Nice Guys (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
26Jun/170

The Nice Guys (2016)

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Jackson Healy is hired by a ragged college student who wants to get some men off her trail.  Holland March, aided by his daughter Holly, doesn't know he's on the girl's trail but is about to receive a painful introduction to Healy.  When the two hash things out, they realize their respective cases have larger implications and team up to figure out what the girl has to do with a rash of murders connected to porn and catalytic converters.  Shane Black directs The Nice Guys, with the screenplay written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi, and stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.

Shane Black's career is punctuated by intense violence and smartass quips.  I'm fine with well-deployed sarcasm but Black's writing roots the dialogue in character-based insecurities as much as he does being a smartass for his own sake.  Starting with Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, the visuals started being in on the joke as well.  This led to the delightful for some, eye rollingly silly for me, image of Abraham Lincoln appearing at the end to congratulate the hero on surviving the movie.

Black dips back into the world of Presidential hallucinations as one of The Nice Guy's tedious dips into sarcastic visual humor involves a specter of Richard Nixon appearing to Holland March (Ryan Gosling).  You don't need to pay too much attention to the dialogue to remember that March was told a story by Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) about Nixon appearing to a dying motorist.  Problem is, the earlier Nixon story mostly serves as a setup for the Nixon hallucination, and does little for the relationship between March and Healy.

Fans of Ryan Gosling (including myself) are sure to enjoy his sopping wet dip into a pool to question some topless mermaids.

If that kind of self-aware setup and eventual payoff is your thing, cool, you'll love The Nice Guys.  I'm annoyed by the gentle pokes in my ribs when I'm trying to watch two well-acted and flawed characters do their thing.  The setting for The Nice Guys does little to move the needle away from a self-aware pat on the back as Black takes frequent digressions to watch instructional movie reels with just enough grain on the print to remind us we're watching a period film within the film.  Most people grow out of the, "I'm going to make a speech about making a speech," period of writing in high school (lord knows I did) and Black's made a career out of it.

My annoyance at his style seems to move The Nice Guys to an Indifferent, if not Dislike, but when he drops the self-aware schtick there's a ton to enjoy.  Gosling is a performer who presents a cool affect and rarely lets his energy overtake a performance.  Seeing him struggle with a bathroom stall door while holding a gun to threaten Crowe is great physical comedy, and his sharp tones when repeating the obvious back to his clients (while writing - "Porn...is...bad") is a welcome change from the cool of Drive or Crazy, Stupid, Love.  His obvious verbal sparring partner is Crowe, yet the best tension comes from his frustrated daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who tells him he's the worst detective on Earth and spends most of the movie putting her own sleuthing skills to the test to prove she's right.

Crowe is an unusual presence in The Nice Guys.  There are times when the weight of his words and reluctance to talk about the past make him an easy fit for '70s investigative flicks like The Long Goodbye.  When he does tap into the same energy as Gosling, Crowe quickly dissipates as his character realizes the limits of his interpersonal skills.  Crowe's best moment is when he Healy is roughing up a bartender, starts raising his voice to say, "Look we can do this the easy way..." before rambling off with, "...well, we're currently doing this the easy way."  Any pretense drains away when Healy remembers what he is, a rough detective, and his scenes benefit from pumping the brakes on the energy.

None of this is to suggest Gosling and Crowe lack chemistry, just that their best moments are the most quiet.  One hilarious double-take occurs between the two bantering away in an elevator, only to exit into a horrific assassination attempt in progress, and quietly go back into the elevator as a screaming man is thrown through a window.  Their chemistry works in moments of tension or annoyance, like when they try to question a "dead" protest group that has a loose grasp on the concept of their silent protest.  It's less effective when setting up later visual punchlines, like the Nixon bit, or when March is rubbing Healy's legs up and down to find a gun.

In case you need a reminder of The Nice Guys' rating, March's cigarette brand is a solid clue.

There's great supporting work from the villains with Beau Knapp brightens the screen as a hapless thug trying desperately to be cool with his threats only to have ink explode in his face.  The irreplaceable Keith David works as the cool partner to Knapp's ink-stained idiot in his spectacular red suit and sounding like an extra from the '70s Blaxploitation alternative to Crowe's rough detective.  Matt Bomer, who I adore thanks to his Magic Mike XXL  work, is surprisingly effective as the hitman John Boy.  Bomer's scenes are the deadly serious mirror of The Nice Guys' gentle ribbing with Bomer literally winking at the audience as he can barely conceal his homicidal intent.

I'm just not a fan of Black's sarcastic style.  The hints of what I would come to dislike are heard well before the visuals kick in with a generic, "wakachicka wakachicka" soundtrack setting the stage.  When Black drops the sarcasm and lets his characters do their violent thing then The Nice Guys is aces.  It's rough going getting there, but if you're already amenable to his work then you'll have a grand time.

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The Nice Guys (2016)

Directed by Shane Black.
Screenplay written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi.
Starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.

Posted by Andrew

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