Imagine dropping Nancy Drew into a neo-noir film from the 1970s, but Miss Drew has taken on some of the characteristics of Tatum O’Neal in The Bad News Bears. This contrast and the chemistry between stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling provide most of the fun in the noir comedy The Nice Guys, a film that otherwise struggles for coherence and consistency.
The Nice Guys is set in Los Angeles in 1977, and follows the investigations of Jackson Healey (Crowe), a tough guy who makes a living beating people up, and Holland March (Gosling), a widowed, accident-prone, alcoholic private detective. As they open in voiceover, I anticipated some great film noir cinematography and a good mystery. Instead, the film delves into the world of late-70’s pornography and focuses on the nudity, boozing, and vivid colors that went along with that scene. I think that the choice not to work more with lighting and framing to contrast the bright colors with the noir storyline was a missed opportunity. I kept thinking of Detective Emerson Cod, of the short-lived television series Pushing Daisies, who was once described as a “film noir dandy.” The show used his tough-guy status to contrast with the vibrant colors and whimsy of the show in a way that heightened the comedy. I think that more control in the cinematography would have helped bring out the characters and the mystery more against the gaudy setting. I do give the crew props, however, for a few noir images and for prominently featuring Nancy Drew books in the scenes filmed in March’s daughter’s room.
In their mystery, Healey and March try to find Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) for her mother (Kim Basinger), a big shot at the Justice Department. Simultaneously, they are trying to solve the murder of adult film actress Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), with whom Amelia recently made an “experimental film.” Meanwhile, they are avoiding a couple of hit men after Amelia, and trying to keep March’s daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), from tagging along and getting herself killed. Their mystery leads them to the brink of uncovering a conspiracy with the Detroit car companies—the source of the air pollution Amelia has been busy protesting.
If this plot seems extra-twisty to you, that would be a fair assessment. The story mostly plods along with a few intense scenes of danger and suspense. Much of the film unfolds in the service of developing the characters—and they are well-written characters. Healey, a tough guy who just wants to be useful, acts as a wonderful foil to March, who has a lot of responsibility, yet seems pretty useless most of the time. The straight man/slapstick dynamic they have works for the comedy and underlines the motivations and the anxieties the characters deal with. Meanwhile, young Holly serves as a moral compass, telling her father when he is being a terrible person and PI, and bringing out the better instincts in Healey. To suit the genre, however, she has her own mischievous streak and still gets into and out of plenty of trouble.
In this context, a convoluted plot is somewhat excusable. I mean, I still cannot totally figure out what happens in noir classic The Big Sleep. Even still, had the character development not been so strong, The Nice Guys would have bordered on unwatchable. I suspect, especially given the ending, that this film is meant to set up later installments. If that is the case, the writers should work on plot coherence and pacing in subsequent stories. On the back of the world building they did, I would go see a sequel, even though I found this movie pretty messy.
I have to judge The Nice Guys based on its own merits, however. I enjoyed the movie and the characters, and thought that a lot of good writing went into creating them. Nevertheless, I wanted more visually from the film and thought the plot had serious problems. I rate The Nice Guys 3.5/5 stars.
The Nice Guys was written by Anthony Bagarozzi and Shane Black, who directed. It runs an hour and 56 minutes and is rated R for many reasons, including language, nudity, drug use, a lot of violence, and sexuality.
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