The Nice Guys (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Two ‘nice’ buddies in LA

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Surprise is always a key factor in comedy, and “The Nice Guys” has enough surprises to bring out good chuckles from me. While it has several weak points which bothered me even during my viewing, it is witty and cheerful on the whole as gleefully gliding along its tongue-in-cheek plot with two mismatched characters who come to find that, like their numerous seniors in countless buddy films, they can work with each other pretty well despite their many contrasting differences.

It is 1977 in LA, and private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) has been searching for a girl named Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley) because of his latest case. The girl was close to a famous porn actress named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), and March was asked to find Misty Mountains by her old aunt Mrs. Glenn (Lois Smith), who claimed to have witnessed her niece a few days after her unfortunate death. Although he is understandably skeptical about Mrs. Glenn’s claim, March does not mind taking this seemingly nonsense case because he is accustomed to exploiting those forgetful elderly people who have been the main source of his income during recent years.

But, as we have seen from other private detective movies in LA, the case turns out to be not so simple at all. Not long after he sets himself on the search for Amelia, March is visited by an enforcer named Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), who is hired by Amelia to take care of whoever is following after her. Their first encounter is not very pleasant to say the least, and Healy surely gives March a brutal warning he will not forget.

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March subsequently steps away from the case, but then he finds himself hired by Healy to dig more into the case. As it turns out that there are some other people looking for Amelia, Healy senses something fishy from the situation revolving about his currently missing client, so he requests March’s service although March is not exactly the best private investigator in the town. March is reluctant, but, thanks to his perky, precocious adolescent daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), he eventually makes a deal with Healy, who soon becomes March’s de facto partner as March resumes his investigation.

Of course, our two heroes come to face riskier circumstances as they manage to get closer to whatever is hidden behind Amelia’s disappearance, and the plot naturally becomes busier than before. There is a mysterious ‘experimental’ movie which is possibly more scandalous than, say, “Deep Throat” (1972), and it looks like this can seriously affect a certain ongoing public court case. There is also a lethal contract killer who will not stop at nothing for getting his job done, and we get a darkly funny scene when Healy and March happen to come upon the latest work of their dangerous opponent.

While serving us a number of tough action sequences as expected, the movie has a lot of fun with its period background as March and Healy bounce here and there around the town. The cinematographer Philippe Rousselot did a commendable job of evoking authentic period atmosphere coupled with the slick chiaroscuro of neo-noir films, and this distinctive ambience is further accentuated by the spunky score by David Buckley and John Ottman.

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The director Shane Black, who wrote the screenplay with Anthony Bagarozz, keeps maintaining the level of wit and humor through offbeat touches to savor. At one point, March and Healy meet Amelia’s environment activist friends who are doing their silent protest in front of the city hall, and we cannot help but be amused as watching March and Healy trying to extract any valuable information from these adamantly still and silent protesters. I also like the opening sequence which somehow works as balancing itself well between comedy and tragedy, and there is even a surreal moment involved with a giant talking killer bee (I am not kidding).

Like any buddy movies, the movie depends heavily on what is exchanged between its two lead actors, and Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling bring an ample amount of comic chemistry onto the screen. While he can be very intense in “The Believer” (2001) “Drive” (2011), Gosling can be genuinely funny as shown from “Crazy, Stupid, Love” (2011) and “The Big Short” (2015), and he gives another engaging comic performance here as smoothly embodying the messy and ineffectual aspects of his seedy but ultimately likable character. Pulling out an expected funny side from his usual tough guy image, Crowe has a ball with what may be his best performance since “American Gangster” (2007), and you will be delighted by many of his droll moments with Gosling. Among the supporting cast members surrounding Crowe and Gosling, young actress Angourie Rice steals the show as a smart girl willing to help her careless father and his rough partner, and Kim Besinger, who once appeared along with Crowe in “LA Confidential” (1997), plays one of the crucial supporting characters during the second half of the film.

“The Nice Guys” is not entirely successful in what it intends to do, and I do not like its superficial treatment of female characters besides Holly as well as its rather incoherent attitude to violence. Like Black’s previous film “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005), the movie is too self-indulgent and self-conscious at times, and I think its second half could be improved considerably by tighter storytelling and more judicious editing. Fortunately, its good things including Gosling, Crowe, and Rice compensate for its visible flaws, so I guess I can be a bit more generous than usual to this entertaining yarn.

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