It was an idea that probably sounded good in theory – find a way to re-invent the buddy movie, and cast two bankable stars as your leads. Seek out a man who made his name by writing a hugely successful film with two contrasting male leads. And have him set the action in Los Angeles in the ‘70s, a time in which the city must have looked cool and distinctive. What could go wrong?
Well, a lot, as it happens. The Nice Guys may have sounded an attractive proposition, but it falters on a number of counts. Its story is of two less-than-competent private eyes, both of them scruffy losers, and neither of them sure they like the other. They join forces to investigate the deaths of various people involved in the making of a porn film.
But these two are played by Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe who, on past form, have shown little inclination to share screen time or prominence with another actor. They’re best with moody, solitary characters, men who say little, stare long and hard into the distance and keep their humorous side (if any) well hidden.
This would seem to be a big drawback in a potential buddy movie. Crowe and Gosling will rarely remind you of Redford and Newman as Butch and Sundance, or even Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. As actors, they don’t seem natural sharers.
For all its drawbacks, The Nice Guys has its amusing moments, and writer-director Shane Black (yes, the man who gave us Lethal Weapon) gives the leads plenty of sharp-witted dialogue that contrasts with the awful murky world they inhabit, and the acts of violence they dish out with carefree insolence.
Crowe, looking overweight and generally out of sorts, is a freelance enforcer (which means he gets paid to beat people up), while Gosling is a drunk who will take on any case, no matter how wretched, for money; he also has a wise, nice 13-year-old daughter called Holly (Angourie Rice) who is presumably meant to be the moral compass in this story. (Best of luck with that, Holly.)
I won’t deny I laughed more than a few times at the outrageousness of these proceedings, but it’s not the kind of laughter that stays with you long. There’s an air of cold-eyed calculation about the rapid-fire quips, predicated on the basis that if you don’t find this one funny, there’s another coming up only seconds behind it.
1970s LA is represented with some fidelity, which only draws attention to how generally garish and awful it looked, and how badly people dressed back then. (Even the cars are ugly). Still, it’s appropriate for a narrative in which such unappealing behaviour if portrayed.
One last quibble: while Angourie Rice plays Holly with agreeable verve and sincerity, one wonders at the thinking of thrusting an innocent young teen into this sleazy story, so that her mere presence might somehow redeem it. Not so. The Nice Guys is by no means the worst film of the year, but it may have the most inaccurate title.
Read David Gritten's insightful film reviews every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition, or download the digital edition today.