Ryan Gosling is not an actor I typically associate with comedy. At his best, I think of Drive and Only God Forgives. At his worst, The Notebook. This is dumb, because there are two films already that prove Gosling knows how to handle comedy: Crazy Stupid Love and The Big Short. There are reasons these don’t necessarily jump to mind, while both films I enjoyed they’re not necessarily landmark films for Gosling, in each film Steve Carrell was arguably much more the star. But they’re important to remember because they serve as somewhat of an appetiser for the truth that The Nice Guys serves up. Namely, that Ryan Gosling is actually bloody funny and I could more than happily watch him do physical comedy for hours.
In essence, The Nice Guys is a comedic crime-noir revolving around a murder/missing persons case. Russell Crowe takes on straight man duties as Jackson Healy, a man who, for a price, will solve problems for you. Said problems are mostly solved with the swift application of violence but the core of Healy is his desire to actually do something good. Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling is Holland March, a former police officer, now private detective. While Healy desires to be heroic but just can’t quite get there, March is pretty much a straight up coward, given up on heroic notions as long as he can wring every last dollar out of a case.
The film is a Shane Black piece, heavily reminiscent of the criminally underseen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which similarly employed a mismatched duo in a crime-noir setting. The difference here is that while Kiss Kiss Bang Bang felt small and dark, The Nice Guys is lush and big. The setting, 1977 Los Angeles, is gorgeously rendered, swinging between porn parties, car shows and seedy airport hotels. The Los Angeles depicted is not necessarily a nice place, there’s more than enough dark underbelly here, but fortunately, our heroes are not quite as nice as the film’s title may suggest.
Typical of Shane Black, who co-wrote the film with Anthony Bagarozzi, The Nice Guys is witty from start to finish. Aside from Gosling’s aforementioned brilliance as an actor of physical comedy, the film is replete with such wonderful lines as, “You took the Lord’s name in vain.” “No I didn’t Janice, I actually found it very helpful.” I don’t think a single scene goes by without a memorable one liner, each delivered near pitch perfectly by a truly stellar cast.
Aside from our heroes, who quite rightfully take up the meat of the events, are orbited by a variety of madcap characters, each of which manages to make quite the impression, regardless of screen time. Chief among them is Holly March, Holland’s daughter, who serves the Jiminy Cricket role for both the heroes, entreating them to be better. While potentially irritating, as many child characters often become, Angourie Rice plays Holly with just the right amount of sass to keep her interesting, her place as the more adult member of the March family managing to angle her as a sort of sidelong third member of the team.
Aside from the consistently excellent comedy, the film manages to play surprisingly well off its action pieces. While several of the characters are handy in a fight, it doesn’t try and convince you that they’re “action heroes”. Healy is a tough guy but he’s not unstoppable. And March is just a shambles of a man in general, let alone in a fight. As with a lot of great hero characters, the duo get by as much on tenacity and sheer luck as on anything resembling real competence. When they are forced into action though, the fights are bombastic and do not hold back on reminding you that, funny as it is, this is really a crime story.
Weak points? Not many really. The film is long for what it is, clocking in at just under 2 hours, which some people may find a stretch. Personally though, I didn’t even realise how long I’d been in there till the film ended. Black is excellent at keeping the story ticking along, managing the pace to maintain interest. Other than that, there are a few moments where The Nice Guys hits absurdity which some people may not click with. It’s definitely a Shane Black film and it’s a film with hard connections to its noir roots. If you don’t have any particular engagement with either of those points of genesis, there may well be certain points where you start to feel the film stretch away from. However, if you get Black’s style and you like the noir thematics, you’re likely to see where the film has unfolded from.
Honestly, I can’t recommend The Nice Guys enough. This is a film begging to be franchised, for at least one more adventure with the duo. Russell Crowe plays understated throughout, containing the character in a way that makes the slow draw of his personality all the more enthralling. Gosling meanwhile is downright hilarious. If I don’t get to see Holland March at least once more, then someone is wasting a hell of a character. There’s so much going for this film but really what it comes down to is the duo. And even if you’ve only seen them doing talk show appearances, you already know that Crowe/Gosling may well be the new powerhouse pairing when it comes to comedy.