Even while the very opening credits are rolling, the ones that go through several production companies, we know what decade we are in. There’s the rhythm, which sounds a bit like Shaft, and then the wah-wah guitar. Then the titles, in a candy-colored, rounded font. Yes, we are in the 1970s.
The Nice Guys was directed and co-written by Shane Black. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess it was adapted by a novel that might have been cooked up by Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard, with a few lines by John D. MacDonald. But Black skipped the book and went straight to the screenplay.
Set in 1977, The Nice Guys is purely immersed in its time period. There are long lines at the pumps, the killer bee threat, and porno was shot on film. I’m sure Black started with the year and went from there. As such, he succeeded, though the film is a bit of a mess and could have used some better editing.
The guys of the title are Ryan Gosling as a licensed private detective, but he’s a train wreck. We first see him in a bathtub, but wearing a full suit. He’s a single father, and his daughter (Agourie Rice) is the conscience of the film. When he asks her if he’s a bad person, she doesn’t hesitate to say of course he is. The other guy is Russell Crowe as sort of a professional thug. For the right price, he will beat someone up for you. But he’s a bit of a sentimental soul, for he longs to be useful.
They meet when a woman hires Crowe to tell Gosling to stop looking for her. Crowe does this by breaking Gosling’s arm. Of course they will team up, and get involved with the porn industry and chicanery involving the automotive industry. There will be many fight scenes and child endangerment, which is a bit disturbing.
But the film worked for me overall due to the humor and all those ’70s references. For someone who has no interest in or recollection of that decade, I think they will be sorely disappointed, for the story has several holes in it. We understand that Gosling was hired to find a girl named Amelia, but I never fully understood by who. Later in the film her mother (Kim Basinger) will hire both Gosling and Crowe to do it, but who hired him to begin with? He’s also working on a case that involves a murdered porn star, whose aunt swears she saw her alive. If I’m following this correctly, then it’s a huge coincidence that Gosling is hired to deal with two women who are involved in the same case.
So forget all that and enjoy the gentle chemistry between Crowe and Gosling. Both are very much against type–Crowe has fattened up over the years, and has a soft spot when it comes to kids and tropical fish, while Gosling does all the pratfall stuff, having trouble with a bathroom stall door, rolling down a hill from a balcony, and falling into a swimming pool from a great height.
But I’m fine with any detractors. There are some annoying cliches, such as a hired assassin who can’t hit anything, even with a machine gun, and Yaya DeCasta is pretty bad as a woman who turns out not to be what she seemed. And for Rice to be involved in so much of the action, well, it just doesn’t make sense. Keith David, as one of the henchman, says to Gosling, “Why’d you have to bring the kid?” He’s right. I think the answer can be found on the bookshelf in Rice’s room. There are four or five of the distinctive yellow spines of Nancy Drew books.