The Nice Guys
Directed by Shane Black
Opens May 20
Birds are suffocating under blankets of smog and bees are acting killer. Big Auto and the United States government could care less. Hippies protest with gas masks and make subversive art films, but what’s the point? The social and ecological anxieties that dominate Shane Black’s pessimistically jovial neo-noir The Nice Guys come in many forms, but each is woven into the narrative fabric with ease. Often, they reflect absurd contradictions and truths that echo our own Trumpian fears of today.
Set in groovy 1977 Los Angeles, the film begins from behind—the Hollywood sign, that is—with an aerial shot that swoops past a reality of splattered graffiti to reveal an artifice of urban bluster and arrogance. Almost immediately, Black immerses the viewer in a spidery and sunny tale of murder, corruption, and plot-driving porno. Independent enforcer Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe) and bumbling private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) offer dual character-driven narrations until their stars collide and form one true buddy cop pairing.
United under a common goal of locating a missing adult film star, Healey and March trade physical jabs and verbal barbs throughout their tangential, Beckett-lite investigations. One swinging set piece at a psychedelic theme party allows Black to brilliantly infuse the latter’s tween daughter (Angourie Rice) into the bloody mix. She provides some much needed empathy during darker moments.
The Nice Guys works seamlessly as a genre collision course. Revisionist elements of the conspiracy theory thriller merge with the ashy remains of Altman’s The Long Goodbye, producing outbursts of violence that are as destructive as they are politically motivated. Gosling’s hilariously altered performance owes a deep debt to the slapstick comedy of Buster Keaton and Sam Rockwell.
Still, the film manages to maintain a breezy, charming appeal despite its mishmash of tones. Much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s great Inherent Vice, Black’s vision of burnt-out SoCal crisis isn’t about the issues themselves but the flawed people (young and old) grappling with them at the micro-level. “The kids may know too much,” as Healey grumbles early on, but they can still teach us how to be nice again.