With the pleasurably amusing The Nice Guys, writer-director Shane Black isn’t exactly treading on unstable ice; this ‘70s-riffing buddy comedy with a capital-B is the platonic ideal of a Shane Black movie released in 2016. Returning to his roots after his one-and-done tentpole picture Iron Man 3, itself an obvious get-out-of-jail attempt to rekindle Hollywood’s favor, The Nice Guys is a snarky, spiffy, not-too-smug time waster in Black’s best blowing-off-steam mode. It lacks the thorny neuroticism and paranoia of Black’s best screenplay, Lethal Weapon, or the zippy post-modernism of neo-neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, his debut as a director. But the restless brio and cheery malfeasance of The Nice Guys is sufficiently delectable in a more straightforward, and refreshingly non-ironic, way nonetheless.
Insofar as The Nice Guys is more nefariously intriguing and stylistically deviant than we expect, it is because Black’s modern-retro aesthetic smuggles in a film of much older vintage. In this case, while the glistening veneer and sparkling chic style of the 1970s drip-feeds the film, its spirit is more smitten with screwball buddy comedies of a more antiquarian variety, specifically the work of Abbott and Costello. With Holland March (Ryan Gosling) as the verbally-challenged comic foil and brutalistic behemoth Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) as the bullish straight man, Black recalibrates the Chinatown-style sunny-seedy noir with an incorrigible sense of giddily blithe disrespect for narrative form and a shaggy-dog scruffiness that feels like a colloquial slang version of the noir genre. We expect venomous coiled-cobra intensity, and we get a hang-out picture dressed up in its parents’ detective clothing.
Healy is initially hired to keep down-on-his-luck private investigator March from stoking a fire on a suspect’s trail. March is currently cold anyway, so Healy’s work is only cut out for him when he realizes something nefarious is up and this bully-for-hire forms an impromptu team up with the private dick to not only unearth his suspect’s whereabouts but excavate more threatening crevices of LA culture that, as per usual in this sort of spidery affair, spring outward from nearly every crack in the ground. Thankfully, Black is keenly aware of the staginess of mystery plot contortions, staging the ones here with a pointed sloppiness. He shifts from silent restfulness to full-on mania, turning the tempo and mood of the film, not the narrative, into the real contortion, one even bordering on brain-aneurysm. Black realizes that the ‘90s neo-noir “endlessly twist the narrative towel” ship may have purported to wind-up cinematic convention, but it in actuality only wrung noir dry. All the waters of thematic and formal depth only evaporated because of the trivial need to constantly twist and turn everything, inducing whiplash rather than affording for suppleness or texture. Fittingly, in The Nice Guys, the twists are mocked as the two heroes, Gosling especially, roll around them without any real sense of sanity or even volition, pretending they can stay abreast of the waves of narrative complication.
In reality, the heroes are fish flopping around on dry land, running out of air. In this deceptively cheeky film that smuggles a light noir state-of-the-union in under cover of darkness, the world isn’t so much a vicious jungle constantly upending our expectations as it is confounding, but ultimately harmless, sandbox our heroes happened to have been thrown into like two pliant action figures being swallowed by the grains. Haphazardly scripted with a slapshot failure to tighten the hinges, Black’s film always feels like it’s rubbing just a touch of salt on the gaping wound of the film noir world, kicking up just enough sandbox dirt to mess up its parents’ kitchen when it tracks its antic tomfoolery inside. This isn’t Altman’s The Long Goodbye per-se – Black is too infatuated with the boyish genre cinema that Altman frequently critiqued. But Black delights in, if not redressing the noir, at least redrawing it not as a Camaro cruising down Sunset Blvd with animal magnetism but a clanking, sputtering machine built out of once-spent parts stripped from prior films and then stitched together. This is structurally-unsound noir, neo-noir as claptrap.
Mostly, Black’s script is a lithe, scabrous takedown of his heroes that amiably extends beyond a verbal potshot or two. March, for his part, is a leaping ferret let out of a bag, reacting to the surfeit of oxygen by running in every direction prismatically with no sense of restraint or direction to the now mushrooming possibility around him. Gosling, easily the most adroit he’s been in a while, admirably invests in the character’s incompetence rather than his agency. And Crowe similarly plays up his infamous temper and bellicose hostility in a passionately dysfunctional performance that encases his character’s humanity in a brutishness that counterposes Gosling’s squirrelly, ricocheting ball of electrons.
All of Black’s films are undeniably tethered to their screenplays. They exhibit a certain visual timidity that can limit their eccentricity or texture, diminishing them into nothing more than a particularly nimble stageplay circumstantially placed in front of a camera. But Black is a sturdy, if merely satisfactory director who at least has the humility to bring his talented friends to the party. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot suffuses the screenplay in a dusky neon-tinge and Richard Bridgland’s production design confronts the time period as a natural extension of the screenplay rather than something to layer atop the film; references to the period abound, but they don’t run away with the film. Much like the fleeting moments of dastardly whimsy – such as Gosling double-taking on a seemingly restful moment when he glimpses a dead body, sputtering into the best Lou Costello anxious-whimper in a long while – The Nice Guys is just unstable and roguish enough to entertain, if nothing more. That the film never amounts to anything more than a cavalcade of effervescent episodes is a theoretical shortcoming, but it only helps view the film as the most acidic Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck compendium in years.