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Review: The Nice Guys (2016)

The Nice Guys (2016)

Directed by: Shane Black

Premise: Set in 1970s Los Angeles, a pair of private detectives (Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling) team up to investigate the disappearance of a porn actress while many of her coworkers are found dead.

What Works: The Nice Guys is a reworking of the film noir genre which was characterized by movies like Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon, and Touch of Evil. Like those movies, The Nice Guys concerns private detectives who are hired for a seemingly routine case that involves femme fatales, seedy locations, and sinister agendas. But unlike the hardboiled stories that this movie draws from, The Nice Guys is very funny, albeit with a mordant sense of wit. The title characters of The Nice Guys are a pair of investigators played by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. While Gosling’s character is an official PI running a legitimate investigative service, Crowe’s character is a hired muscle, beating people up in exchange for money. A series of circumstances flings these two men together and they form a comedic odd couple, very much like Murtaugh and Riggs of Lethal Weapon, which was also written by The Nice Guys writer and director Shane Black. Although The Nice Guys is likely to be categorized as an action film or a mystery, this movie is funnier than a lot of straightforward comedies. Crowe and Gosling are terrifically cast and together they make a very watchable team. Also impressive is young actress Angourie Rice as the daughter of Gosling’s character. In a lot of noir films the detective has a plucky secretary who intervenes at critical moments and is frequently the voice of reason. Rice’s character fulfills that function in The Nice Guys but because she’s his daughter and both are reeling from the loss of the mother, the relationship takes on an entirely different dimension that gives the characters some depth. She’s also able to bring a lot out of Russell Crowe’s character; another of the conventions of the noir genre is murky distinctions between right and wrong. Crowe’s character is the classic disillusioned noir anti-hero but his relationship with this young woman forces him to rethink his cynicism. The story of The Nice Guys takes its characters into the underground of Hollywood’ porn chic period in the mid-1970s. This is a fun and appropriately sleazy setting for the story. This film is also an interesting recreation and light commentary on that period; the moviemakers replicate the ’70s look in the clothes and cars but the movie also has some fun with the artistic pretensions of porn at that time and uses them to devise some unexpected twists in the story.

What Doesn’t: Like the noir detective films that it draws from, the mystery of The Nice Guys begins as a standard missing person investigation that gradually reveals a bigger and more threatening conspiracy. But as the mystery of The Nice Guys develops the conceit of the film becomes more unwieldy. The story has a handful of illogical twists and serendipitous coincidences that wear down the credibility of the movie. The filmmakers struggle with the momentum of the story. The narrative structure of The Nice Guys has at least three distinct acts—the introduction of the characters, the investigation, and the struggle of the climax—but they are disconnected from each other. The various pieces don’t entirely coalesce. The film especially struggles in the ending. Without giving too much away, there is a point at which The Nice Guys arrives at an organic conclusion but the film doesn’t stop there. Instead, The Nice Guys pivots from a missing person case to a heist film but the stakes of the final portion of the movie are nebulous and the finale doesn’t really resolve anything.

Bottom Line: The Nice Guys is a fun and witty spin on the noir detective story. Its narrative flaws are forgivable because the characters are so likeable and the movie is so much fun. This picture is also a terrific follow up to Shane Black’s underseen 2005 movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Episode: #596 (May 29, 2016)