Friday, May 27, 2016
The Nice Guys: Reluctant Heroes Shoot Off Their Mouths, Their Pistols
The flaws of this disposable, delightful film are obvious. It's too long, its action is dull, its violence is pointless, and its plotting is simultaneously overcomplicated and undercooked. With a different director, these deficiencies might be crippling, but with Black (who shares scripting duties here with Anthony Bagarozzi), they're trivial. You don't watch The Nice Guys to see what happens next. You watch The Nice Guys to hang out with the nice guys.
Who are, of course, not very nice at all. Black's chatty oddballs may be imbued with a core nobility, but they're never saints. That's certainly true of Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a laconic mercenary who makes his living driving around Los Angeles (the year is 1977), assaulting wife-beaters, crappy fathers, and pretty much anyone else you want hospitalized, provided you pay him in advance. Built like a block of wood and just as perturbable, Healy is the embodiment of noirish competence; he gets the job done, baby, and he barely breaks a sweat or arches an eyebrow while doing it. This makes him a sensible hire for Amelia (The Leftovers' Margaret Qualley), a sassy looker who informs Healy that a mustachioed creep won't leave her alone and requests that he please do something about it. And so it goes that Healy comes face-to-face—and then fist-to-jaw—with Holland March.
March is played, in one of the finest pieces of comic screen acting I've ever seen, by Ryan Gosling, a prodigiously gifted actor who has occasionally allowed his sex appeal to overwhelm his talent. He's in peak form here, which is more than you can say for March. First glimpsed swilling whiskey in a bathtub while fully clothed, March is a private detective who looks like he can locate neither his dignity nor his car keys. Cinema has an illustrious history of shrewd private eyes, from Sam Spade to Philip Marlowe to Jake Gitties, but March is something else. Where Healy is brusquely efficient, March is bizarrely intuitive—half-Hercule Poirot, half-Inspector Clouseau. He is a genius, a prophet, and a hero. He is also a drunkard, a coward, and a fool.
If that sounds less than hysterical, it's because words can only do so much justice to Black's sense of timing, and to the actors' limber performances. Crowe, coming off solemn turns in Noah and The Water Diviner, hasn't appeared this relaxed in some time; he wisely underplays Healy, allowing laughs to bubble up from the character's essential stillness. He also recognizes that this is Gosling's movie. March is a magnificent character, and Gosling portrays him with just the right combination of intelligence and idiocy. "You're the world's worst detective," someone snarls at March, and it's a charge that proves both accurate and, under Gosling's stewardship, stupendously wrong.
By which I mean, The Nice Guys is full of "and stuff". Its story is crammed with material, including a dead porn star, a ranting aunt, a MacGuffin in the form of a person, a nefarious conspiracy involving the auto industry, and a fretting mother (Kim Basinger, strained) who may know more than she lets on. That's plenty to process on its own—imagine L.A. Confidential crossed with The Big Lebowski—but The Nice Guys isn't just another neo-noir in which two dudes team up to solve a convoluted mystery. It is also a fairly banal action movie, replete with prolonged gunfights featuring a remorseless assassin (Matt Bomer, from the Magic Mike movies), as well as a host of anonymous bad guys who can't shoot straight. March is given a flimsy backstory involving a fire, while Healy receives a tonally dubious subplot concerning his penchant for frontier justice. Both characters open the movie with unnecessary voiceovers (Black wisely excises them after the first reel). There is even a scene where March hallucinates a gigantic, talking bumblebee. It's small wonder that a crucial plot point revolves around an overstuffed suitcase.
Iron Man 3), amping up the noise without considering why we started listening in the first place.
Yet it is more than just cheerfully amusing. Plenty of comedies are sporadically funny, and while The Nice Guys' laugh quotient is substantially higher than its peers, it's a movie with real heart behind it. Black is hardly the most emotive filmmaker, but his affection for Healy and March is undeniable, and it lends the movie a certain sweetness that stealthily infiltrates all the swearing and the shooting and the gut-busting. Healy may be a brute, and March may be a buffoon, but you wind up caring about them anyway—they're just too much fun to resist. And The Nice Guys, while imperfect, is ultimately charming. It's a good movie and stuff.