The Nice Guys Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice. Directed by Shane Black. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.
Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are probably not the first two actors you’d think of for a buddy-cop comedy, but the leading men known primarily for their intense dramatic roles have great comedic chemistry in Shane Black’s thoroughly entertaining The Nice Guys. In part it’s Crowe and Gosling’s dramatic commitment that makes the movie work, as they fully inhabit the characters of a pair of disreputable private investigators in 1977 LA (a setting that Black uses to inform but never overwhelm the story). Technically, only Gosling’s Holland March is an actual licensed investigator, while Crowe’s Jackson Healy is more of a freelance thug, taking money to beat up unscrupulous characters.
Their paths cross thanks to a missing young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), whose disappearance is tied to several mysterious murders of adult-film actors and, somehow, to a Justice Department investigation into collusion among auto manufacturers. As is often the case with twisty, noir-ish mysteries, the actual details of the case are less interesting and satisfying than the characters’ journey to discover them, and the plot of The Nice Guys gets incredibly convoluted by the end. But in the tradition of laid-back LA-set mysteries like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, the protagonists are often as clueless as the audience, and the general confusion is part of the charm.
March and Healy are better detectives than the Dude, at least, and another part of the charm is seeing how these apparent screwups are underestimated at every turn. The unofficial third member of their team is March’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), whose Nancy Drew-like abilities place her in danger as often as they move the investigation forward. Rice is fantastic as Holly, a smart balance of movie-kid precociousness and realistic vulnerability, and she easily matches her experienced co-stars in every scene.
As he did in his excellent 2005 directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black (along with co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi) balances the serious, sometimes violent mystery with a barrage of one-liners and physical comedy (he makes great use of the gag of something significant happening in the background without the characters noticing), and The Nice Guys is consistently funny from beginning to end, even as the story eventually runs out of steam. The breezy tone is sometimes at odds with the story’s dark turns, but the dialogue, characters and jokes are so sharp, you’ll be having too good a time to really notice.