Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Nice Guys

Director: Shane Black
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Kim Basinger, Jack Kilmer, Ty Simpkins
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's an early moment in Shane Black's buddy cop comedy, The Nice Guys, that immediately convinced  me I'd love it. It's when a bumbling private eye played by Ryan Gosling meticulously attempts to break into a nightclub. And just from our initial glimpses of the guy, we can tell this might be the first time he's ever arrived prepared for anything. He carefully wraps his fist and arm measures up the glass window before putting his fist through it. Within minutes, blood's shooting everywhere and the ambulance takes him away. It's the perfect introduction to this character and into the retro world of the movie, which is filled to the brim with subtle jokes that continually keep paying off as its delightfully absurd plot takes shape. Everything the movie does just feels effortless, cruising along for a two hour length that most other comedies would be struggling to fill.  It knows where it's going and all the detours it takes in getting there are actually welcome because they're hilarious and even at times unexpected.

Delivered in a style and tone more reminiscent great, unearthed 70's cop show that never quite made it to air, it's witty and sharp, mining its laughs from quirky characters traits and period nonsense instead of sight gags or toilet humor. And it may be time to start getting scared because if Gosling's capable of bringing this much to what on paper should have been your average mainstream American comedy, there's no telling what else he's capable of. Russell Crowe is superb as his straight man, and while no one could have predicted this pairing would yield such a result, it's Gosling who really surprises with comedic chops few guessed he had, even while generously taking into account his previous work in Crazy Stupid Love.

As if all this isn't enough, Black manages to accomplish the impossible in successfully incorporating a child into the narrative in a major role that feels completely essential. Far from being a third wheel of any sort, the actual performance and discovery of the actress giving it feels like a genuine eye-opener, as she goes much further than merely "holding her own" opposite experienced, powerhouse co-stars. Rarely did a scene pass in The Nice Guys when I wasn't either laughing or smiling, regardless of how little casual buzz it may have generated among moviegoers following its May release.

It's 1977 Los Angeles and frequently drunk private eye Holland March (Gosling) is hired by the aunt of recently deceased adult film star Misty Mountains to investigate the possibility she's still alive after supposedly spotting her following her death in a car crash. A highly skeptical March takes the job but gets a beat down from hired muscle Jackson Healey (Crowe), who warns him to stay away from his only lead in the case, a missing girl named Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley). But when Healey is targeted by a couple of thugs regarding Amelia, he teams up with March and his wise beyond her years 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) to locate Amelia before those guys do. The disappearance of Amelia and how it relates to the LA pornography world and even reaches the highest level of federal government is something this crime solving odd couple will have to crack, with Healey and Holly attempting to protect March from his worst enemy: His drunken incompetence as a detective and frequent deficiencies as a parental figure.

At times feeling more 1970's than the 70's itself, the setting and period in which this takes place ends up being a huge selling point in writer/director Shane Black's capable hands. As he proved over a decade ago with his cult hit Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and even more recently with Iron Man 3, he knows how to write and direct comedy that's a cut or more above what we've come to typically expect from projects that could otherwise easily seem slight or unambitious without his touch. He's definitely not phoning it in here, rarely wasting an opportunity to poke fun of the absurdity of the porn industry setting and storyline, as well as the wacky characters inhabiting it. Everything from the production design to the costuming looks authentic to a degree you rarely find in comedies set in another decade.  And that's about half of what makes this all work. The plot may be played entirely for laughs, but it's played straight and taken deadly serious by these two characters, who could have just as easily slid into a sequel to Crowe's own L.A. Confidential.

The casting of Gosling and Crowe, two actors primarily associated with darker material, is a masterstroke in that we've never seem either apply their talents to something as comedic as this. It's a compliment to their talents how easily we could envision a dramatic inverse to this script with two rough and tumble bad-ass detectives trying to uncover a corruption ring in 1970's LA and it still working equally well. Crowe (who noticeably packed on the pounds for the role) actually plays it like this is that movie, even as ridiculous as everything around him gets. Most notably, Gosling's character. What's funny and to whom is such a subjective, acquired taste that it's all the more remarkable how frequently Gosling breaks those barriers with his performance as March, whether he's unintelligibly chatting up partygoers after having a few (or fifteen) too many or doing a spot-on Lou Costello impersonation sure to delight anyone who recognizes the tribute, and likely even those who don't.

Incorporating kids into adult comedies can be creatively troublesome as their characters tend to be annoyingly overwritten or cloying, quickly wearing out their welcome when placed in more sophisticated situations. Through little fault of their own, even the most skilled and mature of tween or teen actors can irritate if the material isn't there or the director has them precociously mug for the cameras since Hollywood's taught us that's what kids should do. Adopting a flawless American accent, Australian actress Angourie Rice doesn't only manage to not wear out her welcome as Holly March, she stands right alongside Gosling as the very best thing in the movie. It's a child star arrival and performance that's reminiscent of the talent Jodie Foster or Natalie Portman displayed right out of the gate when they first debuted. There's that much potential here.

As possibly the true parent in this father-daughter relationship, it's become Holly's job to keep her dad on the straight and narrow following the death of her mother. She seems up for everything, can read adults in an instant, but also has these scary moments in the midst of all the danger that jolt audiences into remembering just how young and impressionable she is. No kid, however street smart, could reasonably be asked to handle any of this and it's to Rice and the film's credit that this detail isn't forgotten. Nor is the fact that their relationship is so often built on the foundation that they have to take turns protecting each other. And Gosling provides these small moments where we realize that, for all of March's faults, he's both a better detective and parent than we initially suspected. Holly finds a worthy verbal sparring opponent in Healey and the friendship they form to keep her dad on track provides one of the more satisfying subplots.

Usually, when an R-rated action comedy enters its third act, the results are a mess as the narrative flies off the rails. This is one of those rare cases where everything only gets better as the plot becomes crazier, and the closing action sequence at the Los Angeles Auto Show squeezes the absolute most out of its setting and characters. Much of that can be attributed to an exciting cast of colorfully entertaining supporting villains played by Keith David, Beau Knapp and and an unrecognizably creepy Matt Bomer as hired assassin "John Boy." Kim Basinger also contributes as a chilly demeanored high-ranking government official whose interest in Amelia's disappearance is more personal given that she's her daughter.

Even with its unusual setting and offbeat sense of humor, it's still surprising The Nice Guys wasn't a bigger hit. While it's possible some of the really subtle, inside jokes flew over the heads of as many as it impressed upon its release, this is one of the few recent mainstream comedies that manages to not only tell a good story, but a few of them simultaneously. In a way, it would be kind of strangely disappointing if it was enormously successful, spawning a franchise of likely inferior sequels that would seem to violate the spirit with which this was made. This seems just fine where it is. A quirky, edgy cult comedy viewers will still slowly be discovering years from now.

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