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The Nice Guys

May 20, 2016
The Nice Guys

Shane Black sure knows his way around a noir, as we learned from his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And, having created Lethal Weapon, he knows buddy-cop comedies too. So, after taking some time to write and direct the excellent Iron Man 3, it’s great to see him back in his crime-comedy form with The Nice Guys.

It also helps that Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have dynamite chemistry as the (slightly) mismatched leads, and that they both feel right at home in 1977 Los Angeles. Holland March (Gosling) is a private eye on the skids, but with a steady enough supply of dowager clients that he can string along. Jackson Healy (Crowe) wants to get into detective work, but for now he’s in the slightly less legitimate field of enforcement. That is, if someone’s bothering you and you want them to stop, he’ll pay them a visit and make sure they do. They run into each other when Amelia (Margaret Qualley) hires Healy to get a couple investigators off her tail, and hands him March’s home address.

March does, in fact, have a lead on Amelia, but he’s really looking for porn star Misty Mountains. Of course she very publicly died in a car crash right as the movie opened, but her aunt is convinced she was still alive and at her house a few days later. March, willing to take her money, dug up Amelia through her license plate, but is plenty willing to drop the case if it means Healy will stop breaking his limbs. But then two other goons show up at Healy’s place looking for Amelia, so he decides to team up with March to keep her safe. And so they head off on a romp through late-’70s L.A. on the tail of a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.

Black works his mastery of both buddy comedy and neo-noir here. He knows the tropes backwards and forwards, and he knows that we know them too, which gives him and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi every opportunity to set them up, take them apart, and put them back together in new and surprising ways. It helps that he’s got an impeccable sense of comic timing, as usual.

The only glaring flaw is the way they treat the regressive 1970s setting as license to indulge in similarly regressive humor. Yes, forty years ago things were more visibly racist, sexist, and homophobic, but the script sometimes edges over from pointing out that fact into the realm of using it for cover. Thankfully they spend more time using the same trick on the way people in the ’70s played a lot faster and looser with things like safety, and the resulting jokes never go quite as sour.

Just like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang hung on Robert Downey, Jr.’s effortless charisma, so too does The Nice Guys work mostly because of the easy chemistry between Crowe and Gosling. Not to mention the rapport between Gosling and Angourie Rice as March’s daughter, Holly, who would play Penny to his Inspector Gadget, if Dr. Claw was the villain in Chinatown. Healy and the two Marches form a tight trio, as the actors pick up every cue that Black lays down. And when the cast and crew get in sync like this, it can’t help but be fun to watch.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2016 17:12

    I have subscribed to your blog over the last few weeks and enjoyed it. My 12 yo daughter has been educating me in feminist theory, and I came to your blog around the time she rebuked me for showing her something as tacky and sexist as “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.” She reminded me of the Bechdel test then.
    I thought I should bring this to your attention since the writer explores other metrics than Bechdel, and I thought you might find it interesting,
    I hope to continue to enjoy your blog for some time.

  2. May 24, 2016 22:54

    Thanks Micheil; I go into that myself on my own post about the Bechdel-Wallace Test, which is linked at the bottom of each review.

    In fact, I’d say that the BWT, like BMI, is almost meaningless at the scale of any individual movie, but ultimately derives its meaning when considered in the aggregate over many movies. We start to notice how few movies can offer female characters who aren’t defined in terms of their relationships to male characters, even in nominally “female-oriented” genres.

    As for Flash Gordon, it’s also important to recognize that movies are products of their times, and we’re three-quarters of a century better at this stuff than people were then. While it’s worth recognizing the problems, we can also recognize the good and fun and enjoyable parts. I found The Nice Guys to be great fun, even as I noticed (and noted) when Black tips over from lampooning a more misogynistic period to indulging in it.

    For more on enjoying problematic movies while simultaneously being aware of their problems, I’d recommend Film Crit Hulk’s essays on the entire James Bond franchise.

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