On the outside of the cereal packet, The Nice Guys follows one of the most well-worn formulas in Hollywood: two private eyes, just out to make a difference in the world in their own way, are thrown together by circumstance and forced to co-operate on that one big case.
In this comedic iteration of the reluctant buddy cop film, the morally-conflicted tough-guy do-gooder Jackson Healy is played by Russell Crowe, while ambiguously talented yet charming incompetent Holland March is brought to us courtesy of Ryan Gosling. As scripture dictates in this style of film, both detectives have grim and probably tragic pasts which they have no desire to share, but emerge gradually as they learn what haunts the others’ footsteps. While The Nice Guys wallows freely in the conventions of its genre, it is mercifully free of a few of the more groan-worthy excesses buddy cop films are prone to.
Like Starsky & Hutch, Gosling and Crowe drag us back into the smoky, strange world of 1970s California, this time to the City of Angels, Los Angeles. It’s a different world, one where the internet’s not a thing, projectionists named Chet roam the streets, and the cars of naked porn stars crash downhill through your house at night, leaving their occupants sprawled picturesquely upon a rock. People contact each other by corded home phones and drive flashy sports cars past billboard advertisements for Jaws 2.
The plot itself is simple. Famous porn star Misty Mountains has perished under mysterious circumstances, and now everyone connected to an ‘experimental’ film she was working on is vanishing or being killed. It’s up to Crowe and Gosling to track down the key girl on the run, Amanda, and unravel this whole case before they get caught in the crossfire. Along for the ride is March’s kickass daughter, Holly – played by Angourie Rice – who frequently shows up her father in both ruthlessness and investigative flair. Many of the most memorable scenes involve Holly’s timely intervention or well-intentioned schemes.
The Nice Guys, as you might expect, goes far out of its way to subvert the normal formula of buddy cop. It dispenses almost entirely with tedious and grudging moments of respect between the two conflicting characters, and rarely bothers to maintain even the pretense of a scene going the way you would expect. The dialogue is cleverly written, and the action fast-paced (and ridiculous) enough that it doesn’t leave you hanging.
But all of this pales in comparison to the real star of the show: Ryan Gosling’s facial expressions. Gosling has an incredible rubber face. His expressions range from comically sad to hilariously dumbfounded to a whole bunch of unidentifiable looks the English language may not have the vocabulary to describe. The timing on his reactions is perfect, too. Watching the movie, you can’t help but wonder when Gosling’s next expression is going to combine with some utterly absurd line to reduce you to tears of helpless laughter.
Gosling’s character is the comic counterpoint to Crowe’s tough-guy act, and it gives The Nice Guys a physical comedy edge that very few films achieve. That’s not to say that Crowe doesn’t give an excellent performance – he is, perhaps surprisingly, very funny, but in quite a different way to Gosling: his antics more muted, laden with more gravitas perhaps, but no less funny for it.
The Nice Guys manages to breathe fresh life into a genre that has been exploited half to death, and is an excellent experience if you’re out for some laughs. But be warned: it is an exceptionally silly film.