Shane Black may be the last true guy’s guy among our cinematic writer-directors. And his new film, The Nice Guys, feels like a labor-of-love homage to a time when guy’s guy movies were still both un-ironic and un-selfaware.
It’s a private-eye neo noir, that most masculine of genres. Its two main stars are Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, both playing characters who halted emotional development well before adulthood. It’s flippantly sardonic about violence, and its approach to sex is that of an adult male who knows the how to be decorous, but is more comfortable indulging his inner 12 year old. It’s set in the late 70s, that weightless moment after the sexual revolution and cultural liberalism won, but before feminism had gained enough political clout to make American men self-conscious about how they used their newfound freedom.
Which is not to say those are all unequivocally good things. But I did enjoy the movie.
Holland March (Gosling) is a PI in Los Angeles who does good work when he isn’t falling-down drunk. A widower and single dad to Holly (Angourie Rice), March rents out a house with an empty pool in the backyard, and pays the bills mostly by catching people in infidelity.
Jackson Healy (Crowe) is a grizzly bear of a man, with a beer gut and a grouchy demeanor, who’s only a PI in the most peripheral sense. Mainly, his job seems to involve convincing certain criminal elements to leave the everyday citizenry alone, usually with a set of brass knuckles.
March has been hired by a sweet old lady with coke bottle glasses to find her daughter, a porn star — appropriately named “Misty Mountains” — who supposedly died in a fiery car wreck earlier that week. The sweet old lady is convinced Misty is still alive, because she saw her daughter a day or two after the crash. March thinks she actually saw another young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Healy enters the picture when Amelia’s friends get creeped out by March snooping around, and hire Healy to tell March to lay off in characteristic Healy-esque fashion.
Soon enough, the two realize both Misty Mountain’s death and Amelia’s disappearance are the surface parts of something much deeper and more sinister. So they join forces, hired by Amelia’s power-broker mother (Kim Basinger) to unravel the mystery.
Beyond that, I’m not sure I could describe the plot, because frankly The Nice Guys is lackadaisical about its storyline. Black is clearly much more interested in luxuriating in the vibe of his story and setting: the 70s wardrobes, the haircuts, the debauchery, the drugs, the parties, and the general pulpy Los Angeles atmosphere. The opening titles arrive in bright pastel neon lettering, set to a head-bobbing wacka-wacka guitar riff. Meanwhile, Black’s screenplay bounces off many of the iconic fixtures of the decade: the porn industry, the auto manufacturing powerhouse of Detroit, the environmental movement, and political corruption.
The looseness of the plotting can be frustrating. But Black throws in enough gut-buster comic moments, oddball asides and weird-in-a-good-way dialogue discourses to keep things interesting. As his detective plot goes on, some of the discoveries and turns are genuinely arresting. And The Nice Guys features at least three corker sequences, including a hilarious hunt through a Holywood Hills party for clues, a botched attempt to catch a mob hitman at a hotel, and a well-executed action climax.
The Nice Guys’ worst parts, unfortunately, emerge from that marination in the guy’s guy aesthetic. Sometimes Black loses control of his humor, descending into the cruel and the tasteless. The visual gag that opens the film is genuinely clever, but it also turns on the bloody death of a woman in the same moment she’s presented as a nude sex object, leaving an ugly and sour aftertaste. There’s a running gag where innocent people get hit during gunfire, which isn’t nearly as funny as Black thinks it is. One prominent supporting female character is shockingly executed, after just enough screen time to establish that she’s a selfish airhead and thus not someone we should invest to much in emotionally. At the same time, Black tries to use her death as a moral motivator for his two protagonists, an incongruity that doesn’t compute.
Counterbalancing this rather grim attitude towards the female sex is Holly, who is intelligent, decent, and serves as the moral conscience for both March and Healy, urging them to live up to their best selves. Holly even does about half of the film’s genuine detective work, providing The Nice Guys’ best and most subtle joke. That said, it’s hard to miss that the one woman the film presents in an unabashedly positive light is the teenage daughter of one of the main characters, as opposed to an adult capable of being a co-equal comrade.
Fortunately, however, all of The Nice Guys’ best parts emerge from that guy’s guy aesthetic, too. Both main characters are distinctly male disasters with hearts of gold: March is a bumbling, adolescent alcoholic, while Healy is a wounded, violent cynic. Black is unflinching in dealing with their flaws — they routinely screw up easy jobs and run from danger — but he’s also humane, and entertaining in the comedy he draws out of the circumstances they get themselves into. The way Black’s script gently leads both characters to modest but earnest moral betterment is satisfyingly old-school.
Someday, hopefully, we’ll get an unabashedly guy’s guy movie that also keeps its moral footing. I think that’s a possible thing to accomplish. Meanwhile, The Nice Guys is one of those films that’s too rare these days: a personal work, modest in its ambitions, clear in its intent, unapologetically adult in its subject matter, and not based on any pre-existing franchise or product. Though it would be nice if Black’s intent was a bit more ambitious.