The lure of The Nice Guys is not the fact that it’s a buddy cop movie, one of countless others. Rather, it’s the pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Indeed, the ads have been promising a perfectly mismatched comedic duo, most recently reminiscent of Mark Wahlberg and Will Farrell in The Other Guys. It might have turned out that way, had the characters had actually been developed. The same can be said for the film as a whole; The Nice Guys is all dressed up with no place to go, a highly stylistic and decently cast film that lacks any semblances of cohesion and plausibility. It tells a story that’s overly convoluted, and it ultimately makes a rather uninspired and unmotivated point about the world going to hell in a handbasket.
It’s set in Los Angeles between 1977 and ‘78, and this is something director/co-writer Shane Black seems at pains to point out. Many scenes are filled with self-indulgent flash cuts of all things vintage – cars, billboards, landmarks, appliances, electronics – and the soundtrack is utterly inundated with disco and funk songs. It’s as if creating atmosphere was more important than telling a story. The problem is that Black’s vision of the ‘70s is unflatteringly romanticized; the world only exists to support generalizations and stereotypes, including seedy street corners teeming with prostitutes, a mystery that involves government corruption, huge conspiracies, the porn industry, experimental filmmaking, and protesting college kids, and the ever-present backdrop of the energy crisis and air pollution. There’s no thoughtful examination of any of this. It all operates on the level of preconceived notions.
The film is also wildly inconsistent in tone, alternating freely and often between a violent stunt spectacular, a gritty mystery, a zany dark comedy, and a solemn drama. The characters are equally as undefined; Gosling is a bumbling detective one minute and a sad, non-functioning alcoholic the next, while Crowe as the off-the-books muscle repeatedly shifts from procedural to immature and overly quirky. At times they’re broad slapstick buffoons that have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, while at others they’re highly focused actually seem to be working towards a goal. He wants us to simultaneously like them a lot and find them incredibly annoying. Black shows not the slightest indication that he knew who his characters were or what he should have them do.
The biggest miscalculation wasn’t giving the Gosling character a thirteen-year-old daughter, but rather having her take part in the investigation, and in turn all the dangerous turns it takes. In the course of this movie, we will see her doing things she should have no business doing, such as taking the wheel from her perpetually soused father, sneaking into adult-only areas, questioning apparently unconcerned porn stars, pointing guns at very shady people, and even get into a fight with a person who’s armed. If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s when older filmmakers exploit young characters in an attempt to be funny. Watching Angourie Rice, who plays Gosling’s daughter, I was unpleasantly reminded of Chloë Grace Moretz and her fetishized role of eleven-year-old Hit Girl in Kick-Ass.
The plot, as it were, involves Gosling and Crowe unofficially trying to unravel a very tangled web of mystery. Whether it’s for professional satisfaction or financial gain is open for debate. It involves: The death of a famous porn star; the porn star’s aunt (Lois Smith) believing that she’s still alive; an ingenue porn star (Margaret Qualley) on the run; the ingenue’s mother (Kim Basinger), who works for the Department of Justice; a teenage projectionist (Jack Kilmer); a missing copy of a satirical protest film that just happens to contain graphic nudity; and an assassin (Matt Bomer) who’s not only cut to look almost exactly like John-Boy from The Waltons but also shares his name.
The film does contain a climax, but I’m hard pressed to say that it contains a resolution. It ends, in fact, on a very unsatisfying note, making social and political points both unoriginal and unenlightened. It also gives no indication the lead characters are any better off than they were when their story started. In fact, they could very well be worse off. Yes, that might be more “realistic,” but in story this stylistically and narratively heightened, perhaps realism isn’t what Black should have been aiming for. If anything, he simply should have aimed to make an entertaining movie. The Nice Guys might seem promising at a distance, but when you view it up close, it’s profoundly and irredeemably flawed.