Thursday, May 26, 2016
The Nice Guys
THE NICE GUYS (Shane Black, 2016)
A young woman is on the run and hiding from unknown people in 1977 Los Angeles when she pays muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to persuade private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) to stop looking for her in the film noir comedy THE NICE GUYS. Holland is tracking Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) because an old lady has apparently mistaken her for her niece, a porn actress who died days earlier in a car crash. Jackson and Holland don’t make their introduction on the best of terms, what with Jackson breaking Holland’s arm, but they team up to search for Amelia when the professional intimidator realizes that her life is in danger if they don’t find her first.
Both are broken men, although Jackson is dealing with his wife’s demeaning departure better than Holland mourning his spouse’s death. Complicating their search is the undeniable fact that Holland is a drunk, although at least the disadvantages tend to be canceled by the positive effects of his bumbling. Holland’s precocious thirteen-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) tends to disregard his orders to go to a friend’s house for the night when the guys are out investigating, so she she often finds a way to tag along. Holly proves to be helpful, but she’s an additional concern for Jackson and Holland when the setting is no place appropriate for a kid and the bullets are flying.
THE NICE GUYS screenplay by director Shane Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi is peppered with plenty of good jokes, several pertaining to the use of language. For instance, Holland corrects a reference to a “porno actress” as a “porno young lady”, as if that’s a more polite way of talking about the victim, and tries to break his daughter’s habit of adding “and stuff” onto the end of statements when he should probably be more concerned about her bluntness. Black and Bagarozzi make vulgar, funny poetry out of the hard-bitten talk of detective movies and pulp novels. Crowe and Gosling function more like a comedy duo than action heroes, with Crowe playing the gruff straight man to Gosling’s klutz.
As pleasurable as it is to listen to these characters’ terse chatter, the physical comedy is aces too. Gosling gets a showcase bit when Jackson confronts Holland in a bathroom stall. With his pants around his ankles while on the toilet Holland tries to recover the lit cigarette he dropped, prop the stall door opened, handle a gun, and keep his private parts covered with a magazine. His fumbling simultaneous management of these tasks is terrific slapstick. There’s a cartoon-like quality to the physical comedy too. When Holland scrambles to retrieve a bouncing film canister, he chases after it with the single-mindedness of Skrat’s pratfall-riddled pursuit of an acorn in the ICE AGE shorts and films. All that’s missing are animated birds circling the head of an uncooperative bartender when Jackson yanks on the witness’ tie like he’s ringing church bells and cracks his forehead on the bar. Looney Tunes wouldn’t go so far to depict the THE NICE GUYS’ darkly humorous disregard for bystander victimization and situational errors, as in corpse disposal, but both share the anarchic sensibility regarding comedic violence. Black makes clever use of the frame to bring some extra kick to the jokes, whether through the use of a lighter’s flame to reveal what a character hasn’t noticed is next to him or finishing gags with action in the background.
While THE NICE GUYS is a very funny movie, the sadness and cynicism coursing through it maintain the connection with noir. A lot of terrible incidents get shrugged off as just the way things are. Despite the film’s blithe attitude about killing and corruption, Holly, impressively played by Rice as a Veronica Mars in the making, embodies innocence worth shielding from all of the ugliness. Having lost her mother and home--and her father too, implicitly--Holly acts as though she’s seen it all, yet Rice reveals the character’s pure nature when directly confronted with the awful actions of adults. Sometimes all you can do is laugh off all of the rotten things in the world, but sometimes you have an obligation to maintain the moral center. THE NICE GUYS balances jaded amusement and reluctant uprightness exceptionally well.