Laurel and Hardy. Abbott and Costello. Crowe and Gosling? Entertainment may be littered with classy double-acts, but only the wisest sage could’ve foreseen the Gladiator star and Drive’s cucumber-cool Gosling hooking up together to tickle our funny bones. But it’s their partnership that forms the beating heart of Shane Black’s ’70s-set caper comedy – a buddy movie where one breaks the other’s arm in the first five minutes, causing him to squeal like a stuck pig.
Set in 1977 in a seedy, smoggy L.A. of porn stars, hit-men and fish-killing low-lifes, The Nice Guys is a lurid tale that starts as it means to go on. A car, driven by stag-film star Misty Mountains, crashes through a suburban house. A boy, who just so happened to have been admiring a naked picture of said adult actress, then gets to see her sprawled in the same pose on the bonnet, gasping her last breath and spluttering: “How do you like my car?”
This, as we soon discover, was no accident. Who killed Misty is just one of the mysteries in Black’s tale, co-written with his old pal Anthony Bagarozzi, which rarely stops for breath across its 116 politically incorrect minutes. Gosling stars as Holland March, a private detective hired to find Misty by her goggle-eyed aunt, who is convinced the girl is still alive. Crowe’s Jackson Healy is a tough-guy schlub who meets March when he’s hired to steer him away from the case.
After breaking Holland’s arm, Jackson is soon teaming up with him. The reluctant partners are forced to go looking for Amelia (Margaret Qualley), an anti-smog activist connected to Misty whose boyfriend Dean has already turned up dead, burnt to a crisp. Everyone, it seems, is after Amelia, and the ‘experimental’ film she and Dean made, and that includes Department of Justice honcho Judith Kutner (Kim Basinger, weirdly inexpressive).
Daughters are also prevalent, with Gosling’s offspring Holly (Angourie Rice) tagging along for the ride, when she really shouldn’t. As Crowe says in his opening voiceover, “There’s something wrong with kids today – they know too much.” Indeed, innocence is a precious (read: non-existent) commodity in The Nice Guys – not least when Matt Bomer’s automatic weapon-wielding hitman John Boy (no, not the kid from The Waltons, we’re told) pays a house call.
Black, who practically invented the buddy comedy when he penned 1987’s Lethal Weapon, knows what it takes to sustain such breezy affairs, and the Crowe-Gosling chemistry is peachy. Gosling, in particular, shows a real prowess for physical comedy. From fumbling a gun, cigarette and a magazine on the toilet to falling over a balcony trying to impress a party girl, he’s a clowning, comic delight.
A grisly and rather portly Crowe is never quite as quicksilver as his partner, but his loser-bruiser act is nicely judged. He even finds a note of poignancy in one scene where Holly (almost) witnesses him permanently silencing a villain, and he’s forced to lie about his murderous activities. Perhaps this is his L.A. Confidential cop Bud White, gone to seed after years on the beat. Telling stories about a one-time heroic act in a diner, he exudes a down-at-heel, deadbeat quality.
While the dialogue is delivered deadpan (“You made a porno film where the plot was the point,” is one choice line), Black strikes a neat balance with the action and noir-ish plot that manages to embroil our two nice guys in corporate/legal corruption. As for the ’70s setting, there’s an almost surreal, hallucinogenic feel at times, notably at a porn party filled with contortionists, colour and craziness.
Musically, it might be argued Black goes for the obvious – from The Bee Gees’ ‘Jive Talkin’’ to Kool & The Gang’s ‘Get Down On It’, but it’s a toe-tapping soundtrack that helps conjure the film’s funky soul. You half expect Shaft to walk in at any point. There are other blink-and-you’ll-miss ’em pointers to the era (a Jaws 2 billboard), but Black never overplays the decade that style forgot.
Whether Black’s boy-ish sense of humour will appeal across the board remains to be seen. You may also tire of Gosling’s one-too-many pratfalls and a story that revels in chaos rather than coherence. But for a knockabout farce, The Nice Guys scores high on the charts. Admittedly, setting itself up for a sequel may be overly optimistic: these guys aren’t that nice...