Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Holding "The Nice Guys" at Arm's Length

I consider myself a fan of Shane Black and of "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" in particular. So I'm very reluctant to tell you that "The Nice Guys," which closely resembles "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," and is the most uncompromisingly original film I've seen all summer, left me with mixed feelings. It's got a lot of great things in it, and I expect that those who have liked Black's other films will have a fun time. But for me, this particular mix of Black's writing, the performances, and the '70s LA detective neo-noir elements just didn't come together quite right this time.

The opening scene encapsulates my problems with the whole film. One night in 1977, a boy played by Ty Simpkins sneaks a look at a nudie magazine. Moments later, he witnesses a terrible car crash where a nude woman (Murielle Telio) dies, while splayed out in a bloody cheesecake pose. it's a disturbing image, one that sours the playful naughtiness of the film's opening moments. "The Nice Guys" keeps doing this throughout. For the most part it's a light, funny buddy comedy about a bored, directionless enforcer for hire, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) who crosses paths with a private investigator, Holland March (Ryan Gosling). Holland has been a mess since the death of his wife left him a single father to bright, thirteen year-old Holly (Angourie Rice). Both men are looking for a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) for different reasons.

The trouble comes when the movie keeps dipping into darker, sleazier territory involving pornography and vice. This isn't unfamiliar ground for a Shane Black movie, but with guileless Holly tagging along to the adult entertainment stars' parties and Holland being a little too much of a walking mess around her, it gets really uncomfortable to watch in a hurry. Also, frankly, the twists and turns of the plotting make absolutely no sense. When you go back and track exactly what Amelia's plan was, it's ridiculous, and not in a good way. "The Nice Guys" doesn't work very well as a murder mystery, which undercuts a lot of what's going on in the rest of the movie. I also found both of the leads oddly underwritten. The performances are fine - and in the case of Ryan Gosling more than fine - but both of these poor schlubs feel like echoes of Black's earlier, better characters.

Thankfully what does work is the humor. It is so much fun watching Holland and Jackson bumble their way into and out of all kinds of trouble. The little subversions of common action movie tropes are especially gleeful - Holland is constantly injuring himself trying to do the usual cool badass maneuvers, and even loses a fight to a bathroom stall door. Ryan Gosling is hysterical throughout, with absolutely no fear of making himself look like an idiot. Extra points for the recurring girly screams. Russell Crowe, by contrast, is mostly playing straight man, but he's got good chemistry with both Gosling and precocious little Angourie Rice. There's also a good collection of minor characters. Matt Bomer shows up as a stone-faced hitman, Kim Basinger plays a Department of Justice suit, with Yaya DaCosta as her assistant, and Beau Knapp and Keith David get to be the sinister goons.

Honestly, I'm really tempted to give this one a pass because there's so much in the film that I like - the weird jaunts into fantasy, the fantastic fight and chase sequences, the colorful recreations of 1970s Los Angeles, and especially the smarter bits of dialogue. And then I think about those scenes of Holly and Jackson interacting, that are supposed to be the heartwarming center of the film emotionally, and assure us that the "nice guys" really are heroes inside. They simply do not work, at least not in the context of the movie surrounding them. It seems so petty of me to get stuck on this, because so much else in the film does work, but if the basic underpinnings of the story are faulty, the whole movie suffers. Somewhere there's a darker, grittier version of "The Nice Guys" and there's a lighter, more comedic version of "The Nice Guys," and I suspect both of them would be better than what ended up onscreen.

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