The Nice Guys, writer/director Shane Black’s latest L.A. detective caper flick, features many of the tropes the director has used in the past to craft his more memorable action comedies.
Only this time, all but the most outrageous gags fall flat, and the film is mostly a bore. The fault lies in casting — while Russell Crowe proves to be a capable ‘straight man’ carrying his end of the film’s oddball partnership, Ryan Gosling’s work here stands as proof that effective on-screen goofiness doesn’t come easily to everyone.
What’s it about?
Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a guy who makes no bones about the fact that he beats people up for a living. Healy crosses paths with Holland March (Gosling), a unscrupulous private eye with a teenage daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) and a propensity to drink on the job, when he’s hired to “discourage” March from tracking down a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley).
That first meeting, which is of course rather painful for March, leads to an unexpected business opportunity. After a run-in with a couple of hitmen (Keith David, Beau Knapp) also looking for Amelia, he hires March to help track her down and keep her from harm.
The search leads Healy, March, and Holly into a much larger conspiracy involving environmentalists, pornographers, the Department of Justice, and the Detroit auto industry, and why wouldn’t it? All in a day’s work for an L.A. gumshoe, right?
The old tricks just feel old
A grizzled, world-weary detective working with an unlikely partner. A female lead tagging along on the case that most of the time is smarter and more capable than the boys. Swanky parties in the Hollywood Hills, conspiracies, and creepy, skinny bad guys who genuinely enjoy hurting people.
From Lethal Weapon to The Last Boy Scout to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Shane Black has used and re-used these same elements to concoct engaging film noir style capers featuring memorable characters and hilarious situations. No doubt, The Nice Guys must have looked and sounded on paper like more of what’s worked so well before – it’s all there, and it’s all rather timeless, if it’s done right.
But in the execution, almost none of it works this time. Yes, the snappy, profanity-laden dialogue is here, but it lacks punch. Yes, the would-be hilarious situations are here, but only a handful of them actually hit home. Watch for scenes involving interrogating mermaids, a giant, talking bee complaining about L.A. smog, and Richard Nixon to enjoy the film’s biggest laughs
But those few moments are only momentary distractions from a listless plot that in the end comes off as needlessly complicated and drawn out. There’s very little satisfaction in the resolution of the mystery and where it leaves the film’s intrepid trio. It all just feels rote and rehashed.
Casting is key
Looking back at the leading men who have been at the forefront of those previously mentioned Shane Black action comedies, you find names like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. All performers who throughout their careers, and in some cases for the majority of their careers, displayed an understanding and mastery of comic timing, delivery, and expression. It ain’t easy, and it’s not a natural fit for everyone.
Nowhere is that more evident than here with the casting of Ryan Gosling. In all fairness, part of the problem is what the script gives him to work with — in writing the character of Holland March, Black seemingly couldn’t decide if he was a deductive genius or a buffoon. One minute he’s seeing the piece of the puzzle no one else even realizes is a piece, and the next minute he’s channeling Inspector Clouseau and can’t see the forest for the trees.
For a performer to whom comedy is a more natural fit, perhaps that disparity might not be such an insurmountable obstacle. Or, conversely, a different director with a more objective vision of how the character might better work could’ve helped tweak the script to better fit Gosling’s strengths.
Either way, it just doesn’t work. So many scenes in The Nice Guys that you know sounded sounded funny on paper just land with a thud on screen, and it just leads you to wonder if it might have worked with a different actor behind the Magnum mustache and soul patch.
Sadly, The Nice Guys is worthy of a Saturday night rental, at best. Better to spend your time enjoying Shane Black’s glorious past than losing two hours with his present. The precious few comedic beats that do work just aren’t worth the price of admission.
The Nice Guys
Starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Keith David, Beau Knapp, and Kim Basinger. Directed by Shane Black.
Running Time: 116 minutes
Rated R for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use.