You Two, Play “Nice”
By Johnny Pomatto
Now that summer has begum and we’ll be dosed with weekly invasions of caped super heroes and animated animals at the multiplexes, it’s nice to see that we adults still get a reprieve every now and then. Consider Shane Black’s new comedy caper THE NICE GUYS, a film that isn’t just for a more mature crowd, but for film fans of an entirely different generational genre. Not unlike Paul Thomas Anderson, who last year gave us the similarly set “Inherent Vice,” writer/director Shane Black seems to be a fan of 70’s era private detective stories, such as “The Long Goodbye” and “The Late Show.” But where “Vice” struggled with balancing its story with its incomprehensible tonal malaise, THE NICE GUYS succeeds with not only telling a compellingly twisty mystery, but also injecting its tale with laugh out loud humor, attributed nearly entirely to the chemistry of the film’s lead actors.
Shane Black practically reinvented what we now perceive to be the modern “buddy cop” dynamic with his screenplay for “Lethal Weapon.” He undeniably lucked out in getting the perfectly mismatched Mel Gibson and Danny Glover cast in the roles he created, which helped make that movie the genre classic it has become. Casting didn’t always help his screenplays, such as in the case of “The Last Boy Scout,” which featured known comic actors Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, both under the unfortunate impression that they were the straight man. But THE NICE GUYS brilliantly casts two excellent actors, not necessarily known for their comedy chops, with stellar results. The appropriately complex plot involves a mystery surrounding the death of a porn star and her connections to an environmental protest group and the Los Angeles department of justice, but the momentum comes from the two rival private detectives, continuously bumping into each other as they discover that their separate cases are actually connected. Russell Crowe takes the role of gruff, tough guy, coasting off a sole heroic act from his past, masking for the fact that he’s merely a violent thug himself. Ryan Gosling is the comedic loose cannon, a lowlife alcoholic single father and private detective, reduced to taking missing person cases from senile old women searching for their husbands, who are in fact sitting a few feet away from them in a forgotten urn.
In traditional fashion, Crowe and Gosling don’t get along, with their initial encounter leaving Gosling with a broken arm. Little by little though the two begin to rely on each other and recognize that their strengths lie on two sides of the same coin. It’s a cliché, but that’s only because it works. Crowe makes an excellent straight man, with his husky gorilla bod fitting perfectly into the 70’s aesthetic. I can’t believe it’s been nearly 20 years since we saw Crowe solving another Hollywood based caper in “L.A. Confidential.” This often plays like a comedic companion to that film, with one of his original co-stars showing up here in a crucial supporting role. Gosling has flirted with comedy before, both directly (“Crazy Stupid Love”) and sneakily (“The Big Short”) but I’ve never seen him so comfortably mining laughs as he does in this film. He throws off one-liners with such casual ease that they occasionally take a few seconds to register with the audience, as we’re not entirely sure we just heard what we thought we heard. I’m amazed that the same man who gave intensely near-wordless performances in films such as “Drive” and “Only God Forgives” can show such skill as a motor-mouthed clown. His physical comedy is equally impressive, with even his non stunt-double assisted moments showing a relationship to iconic silent comedians, such as Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. He even has a moment that seems to be a pitch perfect homage to the raspy cowardice of Lou Costello, someone I thought could never be spoken of in the same sentence as Gosling.
Black’s screenplay, (which was co-written with Anthony Bararozzi), is sharp and clever, filled with staples of the film noir genre, including wry narration and casual throwaway lines that end up being major keys to the convoluted mystery. I’m not sure if the script and film itself would remain quite as great without its two protagonists. Gosling aside, I believe that Black’s previous effort and spiritual counterpart “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” was a stronger comedy, though less involving mystery. Its complexity isn’t entirely air-tight, with a few threads not fully paying off, though they’re mostly forgivable. I was quite impressed with the young actress Angourie Rice, playing Gosling’s young daughter, though she’s included in a few too many major scenes and set pieces, allowing herself to be in need of rescue more often than the story should allow. However, even with a lengthy runtime of two hours, I’m thankful for every minute I got to spend with these characters. “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” ended with the forming of a new team of gumshoes, and I was very disappointed that Robert Downey Jr.’s immediate Marvel success prevented him from ever revisiting his character from that film. I would love for THE NICE GUYS to be successful enough to birth a modest franchise, because after seeing two characters have this much fun working together, all I want to do is see them take on their next case. But to achieve that we’re going to have to give this film the cult status that it deserves. It’s in your hands now, people, so head out to the multiplex and send Warner Bros. a message that we want to see more adult comedies as smart and entertaining as this. Specifically another adventure involving Crowe and Gosling in these roles that, with any justice, will help define the legacies of their careers.
If you’re looking for more summer films for a more mature palate, check out these other flicks that get my seal of approval…
THE LOBSTER- Colin Farrell stars in a darkly funny dystopia about a man given 40 days to find his soul mate or face some horrific consequences.
THE MEDDLER-Susan Sarandon gives her finest performance in decades as a mother attempting to cure her loneliness by becoming involved with everyone she encounters. A familiar character that avoids ever feeling cliché.
GREEN ROOM-Terrifying survival tale of a band’s attempts to escape the titular venue after playing a gig for an unsavory and violent crowd.
A BIGGER SPLASH-Heady and emotional thriller about former lovers (Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes) still having a hold on one another, with potentially damaging results.