Films like The Nice Guys are nearly impossible to review. They do the jobs of critics, pointing out every single flaw and encouraging the audience to pay close attention. This means that The Nice Guys could, in the wrong hands, but a pretentious slog that misses the target. The usual approach to this sort of spoof is, “look, I’m not a bad artist! I’m fully aware my film isn’t working, but I’m the one pointing it out. That makes me smart and introspective, right?”
No, it just means you were lazy. Luckily, Shane Black is not someone who falls for that trap. As the guy that directed Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and wrote Lethal Weapon, Black knows that the best way to critique a genre is to surpass it.
The Nice Guys works as a noir first and a spoof second. The Nice Guys is exciting and funny all at once. It simultaneously deconstructs its genre and celebrates it. Shane Black doesn’t get nearly enough credit for creating smart films that celebrate the genres he loves. Hopefully The Nice Guys will draw more people to Black’s work.
Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling seem like bizarre choices to take on these roles, but that’s part of the point. Crowe is a veteran of the noir genre, but his character in The Nice Guys is completely removed from characters like Bud White. Crowe’s Jackson Healy is an out of shape muscle for hire who pretends like he’s a good man. He’s not above murdering people and lying about it, but he still doesn’t seem to particularly like his existence. Imagine if Bud White had tried to wrestle against his brutal nature for 30 years and then realized that there’s no point in fighting it anymore. If he’s going to be muscle for hire, he may as well have fun with it for as long as he can.
Gosling’s Holland March, in contrast, is a good private eye who acts like a bad one to throw his enemies off. He is a neglectful father who doesn’t seem to realize how inept he is at everything. He’s also the character that destroys the touch as nails gumshoe archetype. All of his accidents are not caused by any outside forces. He simply tries too hard to be good and comes right back around to inept.
March also gets the best scenes in the film. While Mike Hammer would punch through a window to break into a building, March’s attempts to do so result in March passing out from all the blood after he cuts his wrist on the glass. He also proclaims himself to be literally invincible as he falls from great heights without a scratch.
But I think the best character was March’s daughter Holly. She’s a thirteen year old who demonstrates that she is more capable of navigating a coke-fueled hedonist party more than her drunken father. She is someone who is profoundly disappointed in her dad and wants to be his better. Why did this surprise me? Mostly because I did not know the character existed going into the film, but also because the newcomer Angourie Rice manages to find the right balance between stuck up teenager and broken person. Check out the scene of her reading on vacant lot where her family home once stood – and how she’s trying so hard not to collapse as she explains to Healy what happened to her house.
Tonally, the film closely resembles Inherent Vice. The mystery itself takes a back seat to exploring the characters and the Los Angeles of the late 1970s. Every citizen exists in a permanent state of parody as they wear leisure suits, attend bizarre parties, and take copious amounts of illicit substances. There’s very little explanation about the madness we’re seeing – it’s normal for everyone in town. Yes, the tongue is firmly in the cheek as March and Healy interrupt a students protest against pollution. (“We can talk to you – we’re dead,” a gas mask wearing student informs the two when they try to ask the crowd questions) but the film does exude a love for the time frame even as it acknowledges how bad the late 1970s were for a lot of people. It simultaneously allows Black to use noir tropes that wouldn’t make sense today (how many mysteries of the past could be resolved with a simple phone call now?) while still making them exciting.
The third act of the film, in which we try to figure out “the big mystery,” is quite convoluted. It has something to do with finding a pornographic film that contains a critique against the Detroit automakers for causing massive pollution – how showing a pornographic film in the middle of a car convention would bring down the auto industry, I have no idea. Yet it “feels” appropriate for film’s tone, where a scum industry can somehow proclaim superiority to an important piece of Americana. And it’s not about the solution. It’s about the chase.
I liked what Shane Black did with The Nice Guys. It’s so enjoyable that I can’t get upset about its (relatively minor) flaws. The film’s ending hints at a sequel, and this was the first time in a very long time and I was genuinely excited about the prospect. The Nice Guys finds the line between clever and pretentious and never threatens to cross it. It hits the right beats for film snobs and for the summer audiences.