I’m calling it now: The Nice Guys is going to be the sleeper hit of Summer 2016. In a season overcrowded with superhero films and movies struggling to be funny against social justice controversies (looking at you, Ghostbusters), The Nice Guys is going to be a welcome relief as a movie that’s both just straight up good and funny. Lacking any superhero drama and apocalyptic battles, this movie is a classic buddy comedy with two guys (and a teenage girl) in over their heads.
This movie features the unlikely pairing of a surprisingly not-punchable Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a pair of men-for-hire in 1970s Los Angeles. Gosling plays Holland March, a washed up cop who’s become what can only be described as the worst private investigator ever. He’s been hired to track down a missing young woman, Amelia, who’s under the protection of private enforcer Jackson Healy (Crowe) who forcibly gets Holland to back off. But when a pair of goons attempt to kill Healy in an effort to find Amelia’s location, Crowe is forced to form an unlikely alliance with Holland to locate Amelia before the goons do. Healy is a straight man who wants to get to the bottom of the problem; Gosling wants to earn a paycheck, get some booze, and get on with his life. Together, the two get involved in a mystery that gets progressively deeper involving dead porn stars, the Justice Department, and the automotive industry.
Serious filmgoers won’t be able to help but compare this film to The Big Lebowski, particularly since both films have the common feature of small men getting caught up in a larger conspiracy involving the Los Angeles porn industry. That’s about where the similarities end, however. The Nice Guys resembles Lebowski only in a superficial sense, and whereas the Coen Brothers were intentionally mimicking the nonsensical narrative of 1946’s The Big Sleep, director Shane Black creates his own animal here. Both films are funny, but Black’s movie is definitely more of a classic buddy-cop comedy. This movie is more reminiscent of, say, the Lethal Weapon films (which should be unsurprising since Black wrote the first two).
Crowe and Gosling pair wonderfully together as a pair of buffoons who have to constantly compensate for each other’s idiocy (Gosling’s Holland being the bigger moron by far). They can only be described as a pair of Han Solos: two mercenaries always looking out for themselves and the money, though there’s a goodness beneath the surface that just needs the right push to come out. Crowe is more of A New Hope‘s Han with his straightforward, no-nonsense manner. Gosling leans more towards Han in The Empire Strikes Back as the well-meaning comic relief–although he significantly ratchets up the comedy. After all, Han never had a severe weakness for liquor or a penchant for falling asleep at the wheel.
However, the breakout star of The Nice Guys has to be Angourie Rice as Holland’s teenage daughter Holly. Rice’s character isn’t simply window dressing, but becomes intrigued by Healy’s early roughing up of her dad and ends up tagging along on the quest to find Amelia. The notion of a teen girl tagging along at a pornography producer’s party and getting involved in gunfight sequences is patently ridiculous, but Rice makes it work, and if she’s going to become an up-and-coming actress in the film industry, The Nice Guys will be the movie that puts her on the map.
Indeed, what’s great about Rice’s Holly is that she serves as a conscience to Healy and Holland. Beneath all the comedy, there’s an undercurrent that Healy and Holland are both fundamentally broken men. Healy could never make it as a cop and resorts to beating people for money, having only one day in his life where he really felt heroic (when stopped a diner robbery). Her dad has been slowly falling apart since the death of his wife which he feels inadvertently responsible for. (Comically, Holly drives her dad around despite being clearly too young to do so.) Holly serves to bring both of them out of their shells, giving Healy a conscience and her dad to better himself.
If the movie has any weakness, it’s that like many period piece films, it goes out of its way to remind you that it’s set when it is. References to 1977 run abound with air pollution protests, gasoline shortages, an appearance by Earth, Wind, and Fire that’s literally in your face. (It’s not really them, but damn if it doesn’t look like them.) Granted, 1970s period pieces are all the rage right now with films like X-Men: Days of Futures Past, Argo, and American Hustle. It’d be nice for once, though, if the era-specific movies could just set themselves in the period without trying to overtly remind us how well they’ve recreated the era.
Still, the period piece weakness is the only weakness, and it’s a forgivable one since it the producers did an excellent job of recreating the era (and indeed, part of the plot is specific to the late 70s). An overall fun ride, I say again that The Nice Guys is a hilarious film which is probably going to be the sleeper hit of the summer.
Rating: Five discos out of five.
The Nice Guys opens everywhere on Friday, May 20. Thanks to The City Vault for providing PCU with the free advance tickets.