Are you a fan of Abbot and Costello? If so, you’ll probably like The Nice Guys, a serio-comic noir mashup of mayhem, sexually explicit dialogue, and slapstick comedy, served up with a side-order of sado-masochistic fun. As to the latter element, add in a dash of the Three Stooges. Do you like the sound of bones cracking? You’ll like The Nice Guys. You’ll love The Nice Guys.
Now, who is in this eclectic romp of a crime thriller? For one, Russell Crowe, an aging, grizzled Russell Crowe playing an aging, grizzled bone-breaker of an enforcer who hires out for rough justice—revenge, overdue bill collecting (you’ll definitely pay up), and general friendly persuasion (and dissuasion).
One of Russell’s assignments turns out to be Ryan Gosling playing a cheapjack private eye. This hardboiled dick is looking for a missing teenage girl (who has something to do with the murder of a porn star—but forget that sidebar—I mean just forget it, because it all but disappears). Russell’s character savages Gosling’s, telling him in no uncertain terms not to look for this girl, with emphasis that is quite painful. Quite.
The rest of the plotline loops and arabesques into a filigree of complexity and cross-purposes, a tangled intrigue about Detroit in the 1970s. Did I mention this is a period piece? Yes, the plot involves catalytic converters, corporate concupiscence, and greed in high places. And there is something about an experimental film made by this missing teen.
Remember Russell Crowe’s insistence that Gosling not look for this girl? Well, after Crowe, the hired muscle guy, is beset by other muscle guys, he revisits Gosling on a more amenable basis and asks him to help find the girl.
The setup is taking up more of the review than the review itself. Well, the rest of the movie is a carny ride of gunplay, red-herrings, bone-shattering fistfights, more gunplay, murder, car chases and crashes, and the endless opening of industrial drum after drum of movie mayhem and breathtaking action.
All the characters have a potty-mouth, including the nymphet daughter (Angourie Rice) of the Kay-Mart detective, who makes an absolutely scandalous remark to her father. Her father, yet. Kids today!
So where do Bud Abbot and Lou Costello come in? Did I forget to mention that The Nice Guys is funny, often hilariously so? Yes, I did. But when Gosling does a dead-on impression of a Lou Costello comedy riff (fans will recognize it), it works. It’s funny!
This is a “buddy” movie, and the characters Gosling and Crowe play are as mismatched as movie buddies are supposed to be. But for all that they get on each other’s nerves every other minute, tick each other off, they make a rollicking team of action heroes.
So, is The Nice Guys a comedy? No. It is a serio-comic noir action thriller. Believe me, in it, some very unfunny things happen, especially toward the end. Don’t ask.
Nevertheless, the comedy is not comic relief. Many scenes are played strictly for laughs yet somehow advance the plot.
The opening scene is one of the most horrifically thrilling curtain-raisers in cinema, and the tail end of it rises to pathos. But it is strangely akin to the unforgettable opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. It is stated, then forgotten for the rest of the piece.
This is a motion picture that changes tone so often and so abruptly that you almost have to say it mirrors the raw, unprocessed reality of life itself. It is aesthetically incongruous, but it may be an accurate analog of our world of experience.
This production was directed by award-winning screenwriter Shane Black, but it is hard to believe the final cut is his. Known for writing slick, tight, commercial thrillers, the scatter-shot plot frankly does not make much sense. Perhaps producer Joel Silver was more interested in laughs than in logic? Or it could be that Black’s extravagance as an action-plotter has devolved into rococo surrealism?
The acting is, in truth, superb. Gosling’s LA gumshoe often uncovers clues but for the most part is a twitchy, quirky, and at times uproariously funny bumbler, an amalgam of Jim Rockford and Inspector Clousseau, with notes of Raymond Chandler. Crowe is completely convincing as a graying, overweight bruiser with a heart of gold. It is a remarkable performance. Also notable is cute, young Angourie Rice (an Aussie actress) whose sassy, smart-aleck teenager convulses and shocks by turns. (That thing she says to her dad. OMG! LOL!) Another young actor, Ty Simpkins, deftly plays a street-smart mudlark who drives a hard bargain.
Does all this make for a smooth aesthetic design? No, but you have to see this picture for the laughs, the comic acting, the Lou Costello routines, and the nonstop action.
The first theme of the Tschaikovsky concerto is still brilliant, for all that it is a deceptive façade.