I liked The Nice Guys better than I ought to have done. In its own shambly, loose-limbed, casually violent, off-beat funny sort of way, it has the look and feel of a ’70s drive-in movie, a Roger Corman special. It’s as though one of those young directors Corman nurtured back in the day got the idea of building an action comedy on the plot of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Chinatown was about corrupt business and government forces colluding over the issue of water rights, in LA, where those rights are particularly contested and volatile. In The Nice Guys, it’s about air quality. So, again, elemental forces. In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson’s bandaged nose was the omnipresent main-character-defining feature; in TNG, it’s the cast on Ryan Gosling’s broken left hand. And in both films, an abused daughter uncovers and reveals the ultimate conspiracy. Problem is, Chinatown is one of the great films; a brilliant piece of under-your-skin-for-life cinema. The Nice Guys is a yuck-it-up cheap Roger Corman knock-off.
Here’s the difference; the villain of Chinatown was the unforgettable Noah Cross, in the greatest performance of John Huston’s life. When he says, leveling with Nicholson, “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that in the right time and in the right place, they are capable of . . . anything,” it’s completely chilling.
There’s nothing like that here, in The Nice Guys. No character that unforgettable, no line so defining. The bad guy, US attorney Judith Kuttner, is played by Kim Basinger, and while Basinger’s a fine actress, her part had little resonance; she’s just a typical movie corrupt government official. Here’s this film’s MacGuffin, and I’m totally not kidding: it’s a porn film about the need for cars to have catalytic converters. That’s what everyone’s looking for.
Okay, see, Basinger’s daughter Amelia (Margaret Qualley), is missing. LA PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling) has been hired to find her. So has thuggish thumper Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). So they partner up, helped along by March’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who seems a good deal smarter than her Dad, and more moral than his partner. It turns out that ‘Amelia’ does exist, and that she despises her corrupt and evil Mom. She’s also an environmental protester, part of a group concerned about LA air quality, which sucked back in the 70s. As part of her protest, she has contacted the LA porn industry, and made a dirty movie, to publicize the lengths to which the auto industry has gone to avoid having to put catalytic converters in cars.
So March and Healy, the two intrepid detectives, explore the seamy underside of the Los Angeles porn world, trying, first to find Amelia, and then, when she dies, to find and screen her movie. In every scene involving Amelia, she’s portrayed as completely nuts. And Kim Basinger, playing Amelia’s Mom, seems genuinely concerned about her daughter’s mental health. But it turns out Amelia was right about everything. And when her film does actually air (we don’t see much of it), it does kick-start a local conversation about air quality. A preachy, earnest, porno.
And see, this goes to the central problem of the entire film. How seriously should we take any of it? Granted, it’s a comedy. But it’s set in the ’70s, when LA’s air quality was truly at dangerous levels. Environmentalists raising awareness over a serious health issue is not, frankly, an inherently funny issue. You can make it funny, by making environmentalists seem loony, but that’s neither fair nor accurate, and even if you laugh at it, you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth. And when the genuinely committed environmental activist, Amelia, thinks the way to bring that issue to the general public is to make a preachy porn movie about it, she looks seriously unhinged.
This relates to the other central dynamic of the movie. It’s a comedy action movie. The conventions of action movies require that the good guys win, that they prevail in physical combat with the bad guys. But the bad guy, Basinger, has the resources of the government behind her, including a hit man, called John Boy (Matt Bomer), who is scary-capable with various weapons. And there are multiple other assassins at Basinger’s disposal. Our heros (and specifically, Our Hero, Gosling), have to beat them. Good guys have to defeat the bad guys in action movies. But this is a comedy, and part of what’s funny about it is the fact that Ryan Gosling’s character, March, is NOT good at fighting, or at violence, not at all. He’s a screw-up, and, of course, watching him screw up is funny.
So how does he win? Well, his partner, Crowe’s Jack Healy, is good at violence. But ultimately, that’s unsatisfying. The conventions of the genre require that Holland March, the film’s protagonist, played by Ryan Gosling, win his fight scenes. His pal can’t just win them all for him. There are two ways for this to happen. He could get really lucky–and the comedy could come from our recognition of how preposterous is his good fortune. Or he could suddenly reveal previously unsuspected fighting skills. Which the movie also tries, again, not very plausibly.
Ryan Gosling is a terrific actor, and an adept comedic actor. Russell Crowe’s hitman is a fascinating character, actually; with a ragged integrity and some real regrets over the acts of violence circumstances require him to perform. So at the character level, the buddies work in this buddy-comedy. And some of their repartee together is genuinely humorous, without falling into set-up/set-up/payoff rhythms.
So, the movie was certainly amusing. I laughed aloud a couple of times, and enjoyed the 70s costumes, and the fine performances from Crowe, and Gosling, and Rice and Bomer. But the action sequences were too silly to build up much genuine suspense or excitement, and the central plot was not just ridiculous, it was built on a stupid take on an important actual issue. I liked the movie okay. But then, I always did like Roger Corman films.