Setting aside the genre and tone flip-flopping of Adam McKay’s The Big Short, it’s been five years since Ryan Gosling last flirted with an overtly comedic role by way of Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Your mileage may vary as to whether his hissy-fit scream at a partner about halfway through Only God Forgives counts as intentional humour.) Russell Crowe, meanwhile, hasn’t really ventured down the intentionally comedic path since Ridley Scott’s poorly received A Good Year back in 2006. After a scattering of commercial and critical misfires during those respective intervening periods, both men come across as especially rejuvenated in their team-up feature The Nice Guys, a film where the greatest assets are ultimately their chemistry and commitment to a lack of vanity.
Of course, considering that The Nice Guys is written and directed by Shane Black, the silliness — which includes Gosling going full Jerry Lewis, Chevy Chase and Lou Costello at various points — is laced with melancholy and dark narrative turns. Black is the man who gave us the original Lethal Weapon, which provided a quips-and-cops formula that so many Hollywood productions immediately tried to rip off to little success, partly because few of them dared touch the dark heart of that film’s formula.
Lethal Weapon is anchored by the very real pathos of a suicidally depressed protagonist, while other Black-penned efforts like The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang have a similar proclivity towards people who are barely heroes, and ones who are barely holding on to any degree of stability. A major part of why the darker comedic tangents of Black’s best work succeed is through discomfort; tortured men or women with such detachment from the worth of their lives that just diving off a hotel roof to stop a guy from shooting someone seems like a fully reasonable act in the moment.
Considering so many buddy cop movies of late treat their stories as afterthoughts, kudos to Black for actually delving into a compelling mystery with The Nice Guys, even if some murky plotting stretched over the near two-hour runtime results in more than one instance of the film lagging rather than maintaining a degree of spryness. On another note, screenplay-wise, not having Matt Bomer’s final showdown assassin appear until nearly 85 minutes in feels like a misstep. So many of the jokes in The Nice Guys hit, but the downside to there being so many wisecracks is that numerous ones do not land, and it’s the case that the misses are often bunched together within the same scene.
So you have these flat-lines in what is largely a very amusing detective story where dead air sort of takes centre stage for a few minutes every so often, in part because there’s not always something else going on in the surrounding atmosphere to distract from the laugh gap. The Nice Guys is set in 1978 Los Angeles, but outside of the milieu of a sequence set at a porn producer’s mansion, and the obligatory billboards advertising pop culture milestones of the time (Smokey and the Bandit, Jaws 2), an evocation of the period rarely comes across all that often in the film’s general ambience. One wonders if the textures coming across less like people playing dress-up against a backdrop of recognisable cultural artifacts (see: a Sex Pistols poster in the room of Gosling’s character’s daughter) might have helped the film’s herky-jerky rhythm go down a little easier; you can handle both highs and lows if you’ve got a sense of grounding in something actually palpable. Then again, considering Shane Black’s usual characters, maybe the instability is part of a meta-textual point.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.