Los Angeles, 1977. A tween sneaks downstairs to read his dad's porno mag, featuring a centerfold of screen star Misty Mountains. Outside, headlights flicker as a car veers off the road. Several seconds and many crashes and bangs later, the kid has gotten an absurdist lesson in "Be careful what you wish for."
Most of this opening set-piece is tangential to the plot of The Nice Guys, but it sets the stage perfectly for an action comedy with hefty dollops of the self-aware and surreal. Director-cowriter Shane Black, best known for scripting Lethal Weapon and directing Iron Man 3, returns with this film to the weirder, hyper-verbal mode of his Hollywood noir pastiche Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). The Nice Guys is his ode to LA, the Me Decade, cheesy crime dramas, conspiracy theories, killer bees and the fun of watching movie stars play bumbling fools instead of acting cool. Happily, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are more than up to the challenge.
The two portray shady private investigators who team up to discover what really happened to the aforementioned Misty Mountains. (The porn star's grandma believes her apparent demise may have been a ruse.) The problem is, investigating a potential cover-up is way above this pair's pay grade. Jackson Healy (Crowe) is an amoral bruiser who usually earns his keep doling out intimidation with his fists. Holland March (Gosling) has a PI license, a suburban home and a bright 13-year-old daughter (Angourie Rice), yet he's arguably even less qualified for the job.
Comedy screenwriters too often use lazy shorthand to tell us a character isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, as if intelligence were just a matter of knowing stuff. But Black, like all practitioners of smart comedy, understands that stupidity stems from an abiding and complacent lack of self-awareness. In this sense, Holland is deeply stupid. And Gosling doesn't hold back in conveying the PI's incompetence and fatuity, whether he's taking pratfalls off high places (as happens with surprising regularity) or decrying porn culture with pronouncements like "The days of ladies and gentlemen are over." He's a wonderfully conceived character, a tarnished Don Quixote for the disco era and a hilarious foil for the glowering Healy.
With these two "nice guys" on the case, it's no great surprise when Holland's daughter turns out to be the best detective of the bunch. Rice turns in a strong performance that recalls the alarmingly (rather than adorably) precocious kids of '70s films like Foxes. Black clearly remembers this as an era when many parents left kids to raise themselves, with mixed results.
Don't look for deeper messages in The Nice Guys: This is a rambling shaggy-dog story that's all about the pleasures of nostalgia, silliness, and watching Gosling and Crowe bicker in bad suits. While the film isn't as tightly edited as a Coen product, there are shades of The Big Lebowski in its narrative, which spins out to outlandish lengths only to culminate in a bit of throwaway irony.
Along the way, numerous tropes of the action genre — from the terrifying hit man with a goofy moniker to the hidden weapon that comes in handy at just the right moment — are trotted out and mocked with the expertise of someone who clearly knows and loves those films. Parody is easy in theory, but it takes skill and insight to turn a pastiche into a story that stands on its own. The Nice Guys ends like a TV pilot, setting up further adventures for the hapless duo — and if it did continue, I'd watch. Cable/streaming networks, are you listening?