A buddy movie about crime investigation in the “Lethal Weapon” vein and directed by one of its writers, “The Nice Guys” is anything but unfamiliar, save for one key ingredient: Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, paired up as a goofball detective and hit man, stumble and bicker their way through the funniest roles of their careers. Shane Black’s third directing vehicle doesn’t quite sizzle with the giddy, discursive qualities found in his first directing effort, 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” but his capacity to inject the hard boiled noir mold with energetic silliness puts this effort in a similar league.
Bringing further clarity to the filmmaker’s wry technique after he took a break for “Iron Man 3,” Black (who co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi) mainly offers a playground for his two leads, much as “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” offered one for Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. And that’s mostly good enough.
Set in a neon-soaked Los Angeles of 1977, “The Nice Guys” opens with a dynamic opening scene in which a porn stars dies after careening off a cliff. It’s a sizzling opening bit pitched between cartoonish extremes — the woman bursts from her car with breasts neatly revealed — and an eery atmosphere, emphasized by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot’s vibrant colors and David Buckley’s ominous score. The movie lingers in that strange netherworld between two tones for most of its running time, which sometimes leads to an unevenness as Black struggles to resolve the kind of movie he’s trying to make.
But there’s no doubting the appeal of his two bumbling anti-heroes, who quickly become the center of an endearing shaggy dog story. Holland March (Gosling) wakes up in a bathtub still wearing his suit and tie, going about his business of tracking missing persons and largely screwing up; it’s only a matter of time before he crosses paths with hired enforcer Jackson Healy (Crowe), a Queens transplant who basically just breaks arms for cash. The pair collide when Holland’s hired by an elderly woman to find her missing niece, and Jackson’s tasked with telling the investigator to back off. Bursting into Holland’s home, he exchanges playful banter before casually breaking the other man’s wrist, which typifies the blend of brutality and slapstick that follows. Eventually, the men decide to join forces in search of the missing girl, leading them on a meandering odyssey involving scheming porn stars and cold-blooded murderers that doesn’t exactly go anywhere, though that’s more or less the point.
The labyrinthine plotting bears a close resemblance to “Inherent Vice” in its murky arrangement of events in which the main players generally seem lost in the fog of their own pursuits. As such, it rises and falls on the basis of its game cast — which, in addition to Gosling and Crowe, includes Angourie Rice as Holland’s young no-nonsense daughter. The spunky adolescent singlehandedly hijacks the movie in more than one occasion, although it’s not like there’s much to steal. Whenever Holland and Jackson’s wanderings lead to a big development, “The Nice Guys” sags into another tired shootout or fist fight that lacks the crackling screen presence of its leading men. Their klutzy maneuvers define the movie.
Gosling is particularly endearing for his disaster-prone antics, which include an attempted break-in that goes south when he cuts himself on broken glass, and recurring jokes about Hitler that routinely fall flat. The actor’s zany attitude provides an ideal foil to Crowe’s deadpan murmurings, and Black’s script gives them plenty of hilarious showdowns.
One standout bit finds Jackson sharing a lengthy anecdote in an attempt to illustrate some deep philosophical revelation, at which point Gosling rebukes him for sharing “this epic fucking story” rather than just cutting to the chase. But the chase is everything about “The Nice Guys,” which takes its cues from “The Big Sleep” tradition of investigative stories in which the solution hardly matters as much as the roundabout path towards it.
By the time it arrives at its messy final showdown, “The Nice Guys” falls of short of congealing into a satisfying version of the seedy romp that Black has in mind. At two hours, it sometimes shifts into more straightforward procedural details that lack the same spark as its stars. Eventually, Kim Basinger shows up as the high-powered mother of the missing girl, in a thankless part that simply reflects the movie’s lack of cohesion rather than Black’s ability to revel in just that.
Fortunately, “The Nice Guys” delivers enough brilliant physical comedy to smooth over its blunter narrative devices. The two men often seem as though they’re trapped at the center of a less inspired shoot-’em-up; one fantastically clever moment finds them stepping out of an elevator to discover a bloody showdown and wordlessly backing out of it after exchanging a single disinterested look. Not unlike “Deadpool,” this is the rare American studio movie willing to acknowledge the stupidity of mindless action with a cathartic shrug.
“The Nice Guys” primarily succeeds by recklessly careening ahead in search of inspired bits. Clues pile up not through expert detective work, but random asides, such as when Holland falls asleep at the wheel and dreams of a giant bee voiced by Hannibal Buress. (Don’t ask.) When Holland discovers a hidden corpse, his inability to call out to his partner — instead going hoarse and mustering little more than a cough — epitomizes the actor’s ability to turn his screen presence into a punchline.
Ultimately, “The Nice Guys” offers just enough of those punchlines to carry it through an uninspired plot. It’s trapped between the idea of a jokey noir and the occasional fulfillment of that promise. “We can do this the easy way…” Healy says when the pair interrogate one possible source, then trails off, catching himself mid-cliché. That’s the essence of “The Nice Guys,” which is just smart enough to acknowledge its own shortcomings.
“The Nice Guys” opens wide on May 18.
Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Festivals newsletter here.