The Nice Guys reminded me of a terrific Playboy joke.
I don’t mean a specific joke (not that I could quote it here) but I have a feeling you know what I’m talking about: one of those things that’d make us guffaw and pause while leafing through a faded, ‘vintage’ back-issue, which is to say something smart and snappy involving cheeky wordplay, actual ingenuity and (more often than not) a woman named Little Annie Fanny. Speaking of Harvey Kurtzman’s work, actually, this film feels like an old Mad Magazine strip. One of the more ribald ones.
Shane Black’s new film is essentially a 70s romp about — get this — “a porno where the plot is the point”, and, given such a fantastically, exaggeratedly Shane Black of premises, the film doesn’t bloody disappoint. The circuitous plot spins around the narrative like a yoyo gone berserk, keeping things tight but loopy, with enough room for many a corpse and for Black to embrace the madness with tremendous slapstick flair. It’s a goddamned treat.
Ryan Gosling, as a frequently drunk private dick, is at his absolute goofiest — call it Raising Arizona Nic Cage level wild — as he stumbles through the proceedings frequently drunk and constantly imperilled. Alongside him is Russell Crowe, a paunchy enforcer good with his hands. These two make for an even unlikelier pair than Robert Downey Jr and Val Kilmer in Black’s masterful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and play off each other with electric élan, both visibly liberated to be cutting loose from their usual worlds: Gosling from his brooding art-house films and Crowe from whatever garbage he’s done recently. (When was the last time we saw Crowe in something remotely good? I can’t even remember.)
Crowe is stellar here as Jackson Healy, dour and tough and lovably, quaintly sincere. He starts off narrating the film like a Raymond Chandler sleuth, and while this affectation sadly vanishes, he does look like a grizzled old romantic, wishing he mattered more, could do more, and even, perhaps, be a detective. Gosling’s Holland March is that very thing, though Healy’s version of a sleuth would likely solve more murders and cheat nearsighted old ladies much less. The two characters collide and one breaks the other’s arm — the Shane Black version of a meet-cute — leading them to an unlikely, riotous adventure.
The stakes are high. The Nice Guys may share the vibe of a spoof, and, to a large extent it plays out like one, but Black’s characters are real and fleshed out — from March’s relationship with his wisecracking daughter to Healy’s powerful backstory (which might be best heard with coffee) — and the plot contrivances may be outrageous but escalate rapidly, like a particularly foulmouthed Hardy Boys story. There are activists playing dead and porn producers who aren’t pretending at the same, and smartmouthed young kids who boastfully suggest they have a screen-friendly anatomy. It might be a parody, but within the film, everyone’s playing it straight — and nobody’s named Shirley.
The blood, thus, is real, and so is the wit. Black doesn’t aim too high with the film — the Chandler-touch fades away early, as I said, and this is but a farce merely disguised in noir clothing — yet as a boisterous comedy, The Nice Guys swaggers out all guns blazing, gags flying recklessly and precariously all over the place. Visually, French veteran Philippe Rousselot keeps the action coherent even at its most frantic, shooting the silliest of action set-pieces with classical thriller precision, making even the childishly coincidental events appear urgent and compelling. Black doesn’t overdo the 70s groove, though Led Zeppelin’s Misty Mountain Hop lingers on in my head despite not featuring on the soundtrack, for reasons those of you who have watched the film know well.
It’s a barrel of laughs, even though the film itself never quite lives up to the jawdropping opening scene, where a young boy sneaks a dirty magazine from under his parents’ bed only — after a ludicrous, lovely, fearsome turn of events — to see the centerfold he was staring at come to life. Like the girl-sawing prologue in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or ‘the robot story’ from the same beautiful film, this too is a magical sequence, and I, for one, would love to see Black — eternal lover of Christmas — someday make a film starring children.
Then again, maybe his goals are nobler: to make adults feel like children as they chortle through something frantic and joyous and just so damned nice. Little Annie Fanny would be proud.
Rating: Four stars
First published Rediff, June 3, 2016