The Nice Guys opens with a sequence so pulpy it verges on parody. A kid, maybe about 12, has snuck away with his father’s nudie magazine late one night and is staring at the centerfold while the rest of the family sleeps. Suddenly a car crashes into his backyard. He rushes out to find the very same woman he had been looking at — adult film star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) — splayed out nude on the hood of her mangled car. She’s in the exact position as she was on the page, only now she’s covered in blood.
Grisly, grindhouse stuff, right? Except notice some of the details that writer-director Shane Black includes. At the start of the scene, the boy (Ty Simpkins) is wearing Leave It to Beaver-style striped pajamas and drinking a wholesome glass of milk. Later, when confronted with the reality of his object of fantasy, he takes off his pajama shirt and gently covers her up. This is the defining quality of The Nice Guys: vulgarity that is almost always at odds with a yearning for decency. In the world of the film — the bottom rungs of Hollywood, circa 1977 — the corrupt are in tension with, and often protected by, the innocent.
That’s a surprising tenor to come from Black, whose equally pulpy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ran mostly on comic bile and whose early-career screenplays for the likes of Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero were witty shoot-’em-ups. The Nice Guys is a comedy too, but one with a certain weariness and regret. “The days of ladies and gentlemen are over,” sighs Ryan Gosling’s Holland March, a Los Angeles private eye lamenting the crude world his 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is entering.
The vulgarity is almost always at odds with a yearning for decency.
March ekes out a living as a private detective, while also trying to provide some semblance of a home for Holly (whose mother, we learn, has recently died). He is mostly, however, an alcoholic buffoon. Gosling has been funny before (The Big Short), but I had no idea he was this skilled as a physical comedian. There is a sequence in a bathroom stall that is the stuff of genius, in which March is threatened by a thug while sitting on the toilet and frantically trying to negotiate his cigarette, his magazine, his gun, the stall door and his pants all at once. Throughout, Gosling does enough stumbling and bumbling and falling from balconies (twice!) to earn the term Keatonesque.
Gosling’s straight man is Russell Crowe, who plays hired muscle Jackson Healy. They both become involved in the investigation into Misty Mountains’ death and end up working as reluctant partners: March has the investigative instincts and Healy knows how to handle a gun. Holly, meanwhile, has the hope — that Healy can overcome his brutal instincts, that her father can kick the booze and that justice will win out in the end.
Whether or not it does is something Black teasingly keeps just out of reach, all the way to the movie’s final moments. Whenever you think things might be getting saccharine, Black does something that kicks us in the gut. March gets stinking (not comedically) drunk. Healy pummels an adversary within an inch of his life. A significant supporting character is shockingly shot in the head. The Nice Guys is hilariously breezy for most of its running time, until the movie suddenly, unexpectedly sobers up.
That’s not to say the narrative has the most clarity. Overwritten in some parts, Black’s screenplay is unnecessarily knotty in others. And there is one climactic development — involving a badly miscast Kim Basinger as a federal prosecutor — that makes no sense at all. If Chinatown was an inspiration, The Nice Guys is missing that film’s clockwork efficiency (as well as its existential doom).
Still, these are quibbles that are fairly easy to overlook. What The Nice Guys lacks in intricate plotting, it makes up for in Gosling pratfalls.