By Pamela Zoslov
Shane Black, the screenwriter and director who created comedy thrillers like the Lethal Weapon series, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Long Kiss Goodnight, was influenced by the detective stories he devoured as a youth: Mike Shayne, Shell Scott, Chester Drum. “There was a real kind of masculine, rough-hewn rhythm to those caper novels,” Black recalls.
Those pulps are the source of Black’s trademark wisecracking style, reflected in the best moments of The Nice Guys, a shaggy-dog mystery/comedy that began life as an unsuccessful TV pilot. Black’s crackling dialogue is the best thing about this messy, oversized actioner, which stars Russell Crowe (good) and Ryan Gosling (less good) as a pair of mismatched L.A sleuths trying to untangle a mystery surrounding the death of a porn star in 1977 Los Angeles.
Black’s script, co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi, is rife with clever lines and amusing byplay between Holland March (Gosling), an inept private eye, and Jackson Healy (Crowe), a paunchy, dissipated moral “enforcer” who wrings violent vengeance on villains (“Stay away from little girls!” he growls after flattening a man who’s dating an pubescent lass.)
Somewhere in the journey from television pilot to nearly two-hour feature film, the clever parts were overwhelmed by a barrage of noisy Hollywood violence. The works to which Black pays homage — TV’s The Rockford Files, for example, which the movie references in a handful of sight gags — were limited in the violence they could show, and consequently emphasized wit over gunplay. The exigencies of today’s box office, undoubtedly influenced by video games, seems to require a certain amount of over-the-top violence, at a fairly high decibel level. It does not serve the story well.
The film opens with alternating narration by March and Healy, giving insight into their disappointing lives and cynical worldviews. “There’s something wrong with kids today – they know too much,” says Healy, expressing the jaded outlook of a disgruntled moralist. March, whose wife has died, leaving the care of his clever 13-year-old daughter (Angourie Rice, excellent) in his unreliable hands, one of which bears a handwritten legend: “You will never be happy.” March says his wife criticized him for having “no follow-through.” His client list includes a delusional widow who pays him to find her missing husband, whose ashes reside in a clearly labeled urn on her mantel.
The two men’s paths cross when they get involved in the death of a porn star, amusingly named Misty Mountains, in a car crash, and the related disappearance of a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Healy tries to warn March off the case by breaking his arm (“It’s a spiral fracture of the left radius” he announces before inflicting the injury), but the two become uneasy allies in a case that involves a skin flick with a political message, a group of hired assassins (one of whom acquires the nickname “Blue Face”), a nearsighted elderly aunt, environmental protesters, General Motors, a porn magnate’s massive bacchanalian party, and the Justice Department (for purposes of this movie, oddly located in L.A. and headed by Michelle Pfeiffer).
The plot is a Byzantine tangle, leavened by some rewarding comic business centering on March’s clumsiness. A scene involving March, a toilet stall door and a lighted cigarette is almost Chaplinesque in its slapstick choreography. After seeing this scene in the movie’s trailer, I had hoped for more such funny duets. Unfortunately the film succumbs to what I call “Pineapple Express syndrome” (after the 2008 Seth Rogen movie), in which a jokey, appealing buddy picture looks at its wristwatch and decides it’s time to for spasms of pointless shooting to appease the action-hungry masses. I wish — vainly, of course — that there were more films like those of Martin McDonagh, the Anglo-Irish playwright and screenwriter of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, which feature brutal violence, but always in the service of character and delicious dark comedy.
But we have the movie we have, and there are good things in The Nice Guys — the grizzled misanthropy of Crowe, a slew of eccentric characters and funny lines, an amusing and mostly convincing ’70s period sense, and some tantalizing bits of surrealism, such as a giant, talking killer bee (played by Hannibal Buress) and a brilliant bit about a dying person having a vision of Richard Nixon. Chop away the excesses of pointless plot and violence, highlight the character and wit — then we might really have something. Grade: B minus.