Last year’s Inherent Vice disappointed me; I dug its ’70s Venice Beach vibe, but I found the story choppy and its execution ultimately lackluster—unforgivable for a film with arguably the best all-star cast in years. Little did I know walking into the theater that Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is exactly what I hoped for with Inherent Vice: an unapologetically dippy and fun action retro-comedy with stylish sets, cool clothes, and a rad soundtrack. Shallow? Maybe. But I enjoyed The Nice Guys a lot more; like old MTV, it’s a fluffy guilty pleasure.
Los Angeles, 1977: Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a detective—the world’s worst, by his own admission—down on his luck. Amid jobs like the senile widow looking for her missing husband—his ashes are in an urn on the mantle—March is hired by the aunt (Lois Smith) of a dead porn actress, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio); she claims her niece just visited her, and she wants him to find her. After a run-in with thug-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and a trail that leads to a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) and an “experimental” skin flick called How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy, March joins forces with Healy to solve a mystery that brings them right to the heart of the porn and auto industries.
The Nice Guys is a treat all around. No one thing carries this film; it’s a successful combination of multiple elements. The story and tone—a mix of the aforementioned Inherent Vice, Lethal Weapon (also by Black), and Boogie Nights with a whiff of Scooby Doo—is surprisingly cohesive, absorbing, and entertaining. Where Lethal Weapon‘s Martin and Roger are buddies, March and Healy are “frienemies:” the former is as drunkenly and sweetly inept as the latter is soberly and brutally efficient. It works; Gosling and Crowe, who looks like John Goodman these days, have a solid chemistry. It’s fun to see them both in something light, and they seem to have a good time here. I never thought of Gosling as a comedic actor, but his timing is great—my favorite scene is Healy busting into the men’s room stall on him. March gets by thanks in large part to his teenaged daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who serves as a voice of reason even as he corrects her grammar. Matt Bomer makes a brief, creepy, and violent cameo as John Boy, a hitman with a big mole on his face—anyone familiar with The Waltons no doubt will get the reference right away. Kim Basinger is a welcome surprise as a hard, all-business federal agent. The whole thing ends in a crazy choreograped sequence involving a film canister.
Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography is snappy, with vivid colors that shine though even during the night scenes. The Nice Guys depicts a sleazy era of Los Angeles in a cheeky, over-the-top way—a time I would have loved to have seen it. This is not a film that takes itself seriously—it seems to revel in its frivolity. Seeing it over Memorial Day weekend was a great way to kick off the summer movie season. Indulge, I say.