The Nice Guys is a film of mismatched eras. The story is set in the 1970s; it’s a throwback to buddy-cop movies of the 1980s by one of the writers who invented the genre; it stars Russell Crowe in a role that (perhaps unconsciously) apes his breakout turn in 1997’s L.A. Confidential; and pairs him with Ryan Gosling, perhaps the only true male movie star of the ’00s. Writer/director Shane Black gives himself the challenge of bringing these disparate elements together, and his crackling script almost does the job. He pairs lightning-quip dialogue with cleverly-staged action set pieces, but in the end The Nice Guys is too witty for its own good. Black expends so much energy showing off his penchant for dialogue, outlandish costume and set design, and ability to coax surprising performances from his stars that he never lets the film breathe, and The Nice Guys gets smothered by its own smugness.
The story begins with a macho meet-cute. Jackson Healy (Crowe), a genial muscle-for-hire type, shows up at the home of single dad Holland March (Gosling) and promptly breaks his arm. Turns out Healy has been hired by the young, beautiful Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to get a stalker off her back. Even after Healy finds out March is actually a private eye who had been hired by Amelia’s aunt, he still roughs him up. In the seedy world of film noir, job commitment passes for virtue.
From there, The Nice Guys launches the viewer into a convoluted mystery involving adult film stars, corruption at the Department of Justice, and the auto industry. Like other noirs, the actual plot remains just out of reach. Our heroes eventually catch up, but the audience remains a step behind. Instead, Black focuses on building his colorful world of corruption in only the broadest, least imaginative strokes. The Nice Guys is set in the 1970s, but it’s a version of that decade that probably exists only in cinema. It’s a costume party come to life, and while the set designers clearly had fun creating their day-glo noir aesthetic, the film can never quite shake its artifice, and ’70s-era kitsch is a poor substitute for actual vision.
Much of the blame has to land on Crowe and Gosling, whose chemistry falls flat and whose individual performances are too schticky to stick. Crowe’s problem is simple: As he recently proved on his disastrous Saturday Night Live hosting gig, he simply lacks comic timing. He mostly disappears into the background—a wise choice—while Gosling stands out for all the wrong reasons. As the cowardly March, he gives a painfully self-conscious performance. There is no consistency to his character, only a series of admittedly well-timed quips designed to earn a laugh. At times, it feels like he is running through a rolodex of comic influence. He does a blatant Lou Costello in one scene, and seems to be mimicking Gene Wilder in the next. Gosling has some earned comic chops, but film comedy requires the courage to create something original.
It’s a film that almost certainly would work better on the page. Some of the dialogue is simply too clever to deliver with any sense of realism (“How do you do?” “About this good most of the time.”) Black has rightly earned his title as one of the best action screenwriters in history, but, as they say in sports, the game isn’t played on paper—and The Nice Guys, despite a few belly laughs, comes out a loser.
The Nice Guys opens today in theaters everywhere.