The Nice Guys, a very ‘70s L.A. buddy crime noir comedy, could have been mercilessly derided if it hadn’t managed to so sufficiently make fun of itself. Shane Black, the director and co-writer, has tackled mockable subject matter recently with Iron Man 3. In that instance he managed to break the contemporary mold of moody superhero movies with writing that never shied away from silliness. A charismatic and snarky star, Robert Downey, Jr., helped, as did Black’s directing, which kept the audience as ready to jump as to laugh. The Nice Guys fits into a category with some other recent buddy cop movies, but Black once again takes a risk, pushing a genre film right to the edge of total ridiculousness, and he pulls it off.
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe might not be the first people who come to mind when you think “goofy,” but Gosling, at least, should be – and after one scene that’s just Crowe gesturing helplessly for all of six seconds, you’ll probably be convinced of his comic abilities, too. To keep a film as unabashedly silly as this from being unbearable, you need very strong actors with impeccable timing. Gosling and Crowe have these qualities in spades, plus all-important chemistry. The Nice Guys can start to give off the overindulgent scent of a blooper reel, and coherence in terms of plot does not appear to have been a priority, but it never gets old. The audience is always in on the joke.
Black does an excellent job of creating that feeling of impending violence so essential to a crime film, especially one set in this era. From the first scene, in which a boy wanders through his house late at night, there’s sex – as he goes straight for porn when he’s sure his mother is asleep – and foreboding that comes through in his sneaky, nervous way of moving through the house. Those most important noir elements, sex and violence, combine cleverly and abruptly when a porn star crashes her car through the boy’s house and ends up sprawled naked and dying in his yard. The film takes the genre just seriously enough that you can enjoy it, but it also makes fun of it before you have the chance to.
The Nice Guys also has its moments of earnestness, mostly with Gosling’s character’s daughter, played by Angourie Rice and acting as the conscience of the film. She calls everyone on everything and insists on empathy at all times, and she’s not annoying! Rather than a killjoy, the daughter is funny, and she helps balance the near-absurdity of the rest of the film with thoughtfulness that generally doesn’t feel forced. This isn’t a film that had to have much of a heart to work, but when you have as much fun with characters as you do with these, you grow fond of them, and watching them bumble around for two hours could have become tiresome and even disheartening if there weren’t some sign of humanity or hope for self-awareness– which comes through the kid.