For about the first six minutes of The Nice Guys, it looks as though Shane Black, Joel Silver and Warner Bros. have managed to recapture the rudely funny brashness of the Lethal Weapon series and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. And then for the next increasingly punishing and repetitious 110 minutes, it becomes all too evident that they have not. A ride with another pair of oddly matched private dicks in the smog-and-porn-smothered Los Angeles of 1977, this nostalgically seamy slice of violent slapstick pairs a game Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as a mutually abusive duo unlikely to inspire sequelitis. And it hardly seems a likely choice for the Cannes Film Festival, even in an out-of-competition slot.
The opening scene is outrageous enough to whet the appetite for a tasteless, impudently anti-p.c. wallow in the Hollywood of 40 years ago, when the town was physically fraying at the seams, drugs and funk were everywhere, flared pants and flowered shirts were the look and porn played at the Pussycat. On a twisty road not far from the tattered Hollywood sign, a hot rod with Misty Mountain license plates careens out of control, crashes onto a house and leaves lying, very exposed atop the wreckage, a voluptuous young naked woman whose dying words are, “How do you like my car?”
Misty, it’s no surprise to learn, was a porn star, and the mystery of her death soon becomes intertwined with the search for a missing girl named Amelia that brings together two private investigators who, it can be quickly surmised, work independently because no one else would want to team up with them. In their brutal meet-cute, the gruff and beefy Bronx-spawned Jackson Healy (Crowe) breaks the arm of the younger, booze-buzzed Holland March (Gosling). But the latter, who has an uncommonly clear-eyed and unjaded 13-year-old daughter of his own, Holly (Angourie Rice, promising), is just one step from the gutter himself, so this distinctly inauspicious pair becomes a team of sorts that finds its proper level among the lowlifes and bottom-feeders that lurk in the cisterns of the entertainment business.
This being Southern California, the land of Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer and J.J. Gittes, the self-styled solitary ops can’t help but mingle with the rich and swell, the source from which all corruption naturally seeps in these parts. Here the rot is personified by Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger, Crowe’s long-ago partner in the great L.A. Confidential), Amelia’s mother, and whose position as the chief of the California Department of Justice almost automatically signals that she’ll dispense anything but.
This is hardly the first time that daughters play a central role in a Hollywood-set mystery — The Big Sleep and Chinatown leap quickly to mind — and this one not only features the almost incongruously well-balanced Holly but Amelia, a young crusader who knows too much for her own good about the true intentions of the high and mighty as well as the low and slimy. She’s a highly unrealistic figure, in fact, one that figures far more like a plot mechanism than as a flesh-and-blood character.
As such, it just doesn’t compute that the threat she poses is going to either prevent or cause the mayhem she generates among shadowy L.A.-Las Vegas-circuit sleazebags, whose mentality and taste dominate the tacky realm the film so enthusiastically embraces.
In this connection, kudos are due to production designer Richard Bridgland and costume designer Kym Barrett for their vivid reminders of how much L.A. has spruced itself up over the past 40 years, and for cinematographer Philippe Rousselot’s figurative and possibly even literal use of a smog filter to evoke a physically and morally toxic environment.
That the film mostly falls flat has far more to do with the largely unconvincing material rather than with the co-stars, who are more than game for the often clownish shenanigans Black and his co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi have concocted for them; in fit and starts, the actors display a buoyant comic rapport.
Now flouting a huge bulk that can’t help but call John Goodman to mind, Crowe is the stalwart immovable object here, ready to lead with action and ask questions later. Gosling provides an extreme contrast as a slim, nervous, disorganized clown whose sense of responsibility to his daughter provides his only motivation to get his act together. The actors are appealing together and have their moments, even if the writing and direction overwhelmingly underserve them.
Two big set-pieces, at a nocturnal porn party and a 1977 L.A. auto show, are evocative of a specific time, place and mindset, but prove too chaotic and unfocused to fulfill their potential. The soundtrack, however, serves as a groovy time machine.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (noncompeting)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Production: Silver Pictures, Waypoint Entertainment, RatPac-Dune Entertainment
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio, Gil Gerard, Daisy Tahan, Kim Basinger
Director: Shane Black
Screenwriters: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Producer: Joel Silver
Executive producers: Ken Kao, Hall Sadoff, Anthony Bagarozzi, Alex Walton, Michael J. Malone,
Director of photography: Philippe Rousselot
Production designer: Richard Bridgland
Costume designer: Kym Barrett
Editor: Joel Negron
Music: John Ottman, David Buckley
Casting: Sarah Haley Finn
Rated R, 116 minutes