The good news is Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are hilarious together in THE NICE GUYS (2016), the new action comedy in which the two stars play investigators working a case in 1970s Los Angeles.
The bad news is they’re stuck in a story that is so implausible it becomes distracting.
THE NICE GUYS takes place in 1977 and opens with a spectacular car crash which kills porn actress Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). It’s a visually impressive scene, but just why she would be naked behind the wheel left me scratching my head.
The movie then takes the curious step of having two voice-over narrators. That’s right. Early on, the film is narrated by both Russel Crowe’s and Ryan Gosling’s characters. This has the potential to be confusing, but it never becomes a problem because the film eventually drops the first person narration altogether.
Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) gets paid to beat up bad guys. If someone is giving you trouble, you hire Healy to take care of him. He’s sort of Deadpool without the suit, or the quick wit.
Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a down-on-his-luck private investigator. He’s hired by Misty Mountains’ grandmother because the elderly woman swears she saw her granddaughter alive after the supposed car accident.
March’s search leads him to a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a girl who also just happened to hire Healy to get March off her trail. So, Healy delivers the girl’s message by beating up March. However, soon after, a pair of thugs attack Healy demanding information on the whereabouts of Amelia.
Believing Amelia to be in danger, and also a bit miffed at the thugs who messed up his apartment, Healy returns to March and hires him to continue his search for Amelia, and of course the two men end up working together to solve this complicated yet not very captivating mystery.
While parts of this movie are indeed very funny, and while Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling work well together, the story leaves a lot to be desired. And that’s because the screenplay by Shane Black, who directed, and Anthony Bagarozzi, is pretty much just an excuse to have Crowe and Gosling play off one other.
The story is so convoluted it’s ridiculous. There’s all this hullabaloo over a porn movie, which is difficult to imagine, and there’s the whole tie-in with Amelia’s mother, district attorney Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger) which is even more unbelievable and contrived. With a better script, this one could have been really good.
And while Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are both very good here, neither one of them are at the top of their games in this one. I enjoyed Crowe more in NOAH (2014) and even as Jor-El in MAN OF STEEL (2013). Likewise, I enjoyed Gosling more in THE BIG SHORT (2015). There wasn’t anything wrong with either actors’ performance here, but neither one did much of anything I hadn’t seen them do before.
Plus, it looked like they were self-aware of how much fun they were having as actors, as opposed to being those two characters. They didn’t seem all that nervous, even when their lives were in danger. Worse, several times Gosling’s character’s teen daughter is put in life threatening situations, and yet he never even seems to break a sweat over it. There was something very cartoonish and phony about this movie.
Young Angourie Rice plays Gosling’s 13 year-old daughter Holly, and she’s Disneyesque in her cuteness. Of course, the running joke throughout is that she’s wise beyond her years, and so we get to hear her spout off adult language and be put in adult situations, like watching a porn movie at a porn party featuring plenty of nude women, and she always seems to be in position to have her dad’s back and get him out of trouble.
However, for some reason, as good as Rice was in this role, these scenes never quite worked for me. I think it’s because Gosling didn’t act like he was her dad. As I said, he barely seemed concerned whenever her life was in danger. Sure, he goes through the motions of trying to protect his daughter, but the emotions just weren’t there.
At one point in the movie he laments that society has gotten so bad his daughter doesn’t have a chance at a good life, yet he doesn’t bat an eye when she’s in a firefight with the bad guys. At times, Crowe’s character seems more concerned about her. Of course, Gosling’s character has a drinking problem, and so he’s not going to be much of a father while drunk, but somehow it doesn’t seem to stop him from being a good private investigator.
The rest of the cast is blah, even with some veterans of the field. Kim Basinger does very little as Amelia’s powerful district attorney mom, who may or may not be a part of a conspiracy. Gil Gerard has a small bit as Detroit Auto Industry big wig, and Keith David, who I will forever remember as Childs in John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982), plays one of the thugs who’s after Amelia.
The direction by Shane Black runs hot and cold. For the most part, the humorous scenes work. The scenes of physical comedy are handled especially well. That being said, THE NICE GUYS is one of those movies where nearly all the gags were shown in the film’s trailers. I really wish the art of making film trailers would change. Too many trailers give away too much. While I still laughed during THE NICE GUYS, I had seen nearly every gag already.
I also thought director Black made some odd choices. The opening sequence with the car crash that kills Misty Mountains was weird. There was something very dreamlike about it. We see a boy looking through a nudie magazine, and as he sees a centerfold of Misty Mountains, a car crashes through his house. He runs to the car and finds a bloodied Misty Mountains behind the wheel, and she’s naked. I thought the kid was dreaming. Yet, no, this really happened.
There were several moments in the movie where I questioned whether what I was watching was real or not, as I kept waiting for some punch line which never came. In fact, there is one scene that is a dream sequence. I almost expected this entire movie to be a dream, since its plot was so ridiculous.
There’s a Richard Nixon joke/gag that I thought was as odd as it was unfunny.
The ending is as flat as endings can be. I listened to Kim Basinger’s speech about Detroit and I felt like James Franco scratching his head and saying, “Wha—aat???” And the film just sort of ends, with a lame attempt at setting up a sequel.
Black does capture the mood and look of the 1970s, and the soundtrack features lots of late 70s disco tunes.
THE NICE GUYS is a mixed bag. It’ll make you laugh, sure, but its far-fetched plot doesn’t do it any favors.