In Shane Black’s grand tradition of gruff-and-morbid buddy comedies comes The Nice Guys, which is a comedy delivered at blunt-force, with a sly smirk. It’s goofily sardonic, awkwardly witty, shockingly brutal, and has an uncomfortable relationship with sex, by which it wants to ogle and overprotect women at the same time. That kind of oddball tonal sledgehammer will enamor audiences who find the approach novel, but in fact this has been Black’s M.O. as a screenwriter since he burst onto the scene with Lethal Weapon in 1987. It’s a transparent formula at this point for anyone paying attention – and yet, on the evidence of this film, it’s still a successful one.
The discordant blend of harsh violence, seedy sexuality, and Benny Hill-style comedy is jarring and disarming, though it’s been rendered into a very predictable pattern coming from Black, who has maintained a consistent point of view throughout a tumultuous career that saw him rocket to screenwriting stardom, then fall completely off the map, then find resurrection. A notorious partier and former addict, Black has apparently cleaned up his act in the intervening years, though his thematic obsessions have remained constant – sex, drugs, and violence, thrown into a cauldron and blended into an uncomfortably entertaining cocktail of which he is simultaneously wary and in love.
The hard-boiled pulp of cheap paperback detective novels is Black’s ever-present canvas, and the silly unpredictability of two mismatched antiheroes is the hinge on which zaniness turns throughout this environment. It’s no different in The Nice Guys, though the energizing jolt here is the pairing of Russell Crowe, handed his best grizzled movie star role in years, with Ryan Gosling, who is permitted to go full moron and relishes every minute. Crowe is Healy, an underground private investigator with a penchant for violence but diligent adherence to seeking justice. Gosling’s Holland March runs a more formalized PI racket that’s sole purpose is to bilk clients out of their cash with little intention of solving their cases. They’re both assholes, albeit of different varieties. Their paths cross as they investigate different angles of the same case: the death of infamous porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) and subsequent disappearance of her younger co-star, Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Maybe drugs were involved, or perhaps foul play, as hints of abuse are sprinkled in the wake of these events.
Healy and March tip-toe into the seedy underworld of the ‘70s-era porn boom, encountering comically arch villains, two handfuls of sudden ultraviolent jolts, and a squirming preponderance of naked women, befitting the movie’s restless push-pull relationship with sensationalism. At times the satiric verve is clear, at others it feels like the filmmaker just can’t bring himself to look away. Such a shifting directorial gaze blunts the impact of the film’s otherwise sharp wit and off-the-wall eccentricity, which is carried off nimbly by Crowe and Gosling, whose charisma both separately and together gives us something to engage with as they guide us through the morbidity. Some of it works perfectly, more of it seems like the calibration is off just a tick, but the two stars never miss a beat.
Black and Anthony Bagarozzi’s screenplay is fun but not even remotely cohesive, willfully obtuse at every incomprehensible turn. Madcap insanity is the ultimate goal, with the writers challenging themselves to go further over the top from one scene to the next. Ever fascinated with the unexpected connection between seemingly divergent mysteries (for Black’s own personal dissection of said fascination, look no further than 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which acts as a self-reflective skewer), The Nice Guys bounces off the porn world, onto political activism and even government conspiracy on its way to a finale that is almost entirely inexplicable but too self-consciously ridiculous to not enjoy. That’s how the movie finally takes hold – it dares the audience not to indulge in its lunacy and wins. Had it stopped hedging on some of its seedier preoccupations, it would’ve been even easier to surrender. But, eventually, the film cracks us.