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Review: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling enliven Shane Black’s retro-noir comedy ‘The Nice Guys’

“The Nice Guys”
Ryan Gosling, left, and Russell Crowe play private eyes in “The Nice Guys.”
(Daniel McFadden / Warner Bros. Entertainment)

In “The Nice Guys,” a cheerfully aimless plunge into the scuzzy noir soul of 1970s Los Angeles, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling play mismatched private eyes searching — as private eyes in 1970s Los Angeles are wont to do — for a young woman in trouble. The girl is Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley), a rebellious teenager who has run away from home without explanation, with a small army of thugs, assassins and corrupt officials in hot pursuit.

Amelia does eventually turn up at the midway point, though her precise purpose in the narrative — a thick, tangled skein of mistaken identities and vehicular mishaps — never quite rises above the level of passing interest on either side of the screen. It’s clear, pretty early on, that our heroes don’t really have their heads in the game. Tracking down a missing person seems merely a thin pretext — like a kid’s birthday party or a midnight grease infusion at Pink’s — for the dumb, grudging pleasure of each other’s company.

At its infrequent best, “The Nice Guys” succeeds in making that pleasure contagious, mining a brash, vigorous comic energy from that sweet spot where male affection and aggression collide. Directed by Shane Black (who wrote the screenplay with Anthony Bagarozzi), the movie pays nostalgic tribute to a time long before the term “bromance” was in circulation, and several years before the release of “Lethal Weapon,” the seminal 1987 buddy comedy that marked Black’s screenwriting debut.

Still, from the moment Jackson Healy (Crowe), a punchy, paunchy local enforcer, introduces himself and his brass knuckles to a hapless private investigator named Holland March (Gosling), it’s clear we’re witnessing the ugly beginnings of a beautiful friendship. Jackson, looking grizzled and gone-to-seed in his blue leather jacket, will beat up anyone you want if the price is right. Holland, who’s been a boozy, bumbling disaster since his wife’s death, will take on the crummiest cases, which his precocious, exasperated teenage daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), is all too eager to help him with.

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Throwing a kid into the middle of all this mayhem could have felt like a cynically sentimental move, but Holly, in a pleasant surprise, has been fleshed out with sufficient depth to reward newcomer Rice’s spirited investment in the role. And she brings out a natural warmth in Gosling, whose droopy hangdog earnestness is never more winning than when he’s playing a guy who just isn’t very bright. (He’s become a terrific physical comedian too, to judge by a funny bit with a magazine and a toilet stall.) Crowe’s Jackson, by contrast, is all stolid, self-assured competence, and the actor wears his girth proudly: Few performers have done better while looking worse.

The case they’ve taken on, alas, only intermittently proves worthy of them. At times “The Nice Guys” feels like a rough two-hour pilot for a retro crime series that will almost certainly become more polished and cohesive in its future episodes. Still, as stand-alone capers go, this scattershot sampling of Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, with a dash of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and “Inherent Vice,” is not without its pleasures. 

As he demonstrated in the dripping-with-attitude “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and the unusually edgy “Iron Man 3,” Black has a gonzo sensibility that can invest a stale Hollywood formula with an infectious sense of play. Though the plot here may be a confusing, multi-threaded mess (which may in fact be the script’s truest homage to Chandler), it’s occasionally offset by the exuberance with which Black blends splatter and slapstick, and the leeway he grants his two very game leads.

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It begins with an arresting set piece in which a car goes crashing downhill one night, slamming into a house and disgorging the scantily clad body of a porn star named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). “How do you like my car, big boy?” she purrs before dying. It’s not the last time “The Nice Guys” will invoke automobiles and smut, the two booming industries waging war for the city’s soul. The inquiry into the actress’ death soon gives rise to another mystery, this one involving the disappearance of Amelia, a Misty look-alike who has done her own dabbling in clothing-optional “experimental” cinema.

Against a swirling backdrop of disco and paisley, pool parties and strip clubs, marijuana highs and drunken-bender lows, Holland and Jackson repeatedly run afoul of a city-wide conspiracy that starts with a couple of hoodlums (played with effective nastiness by Keith David and Beau Knapp) and will later introduce a few bigger guns. These include Matt Bomer in an impressive change-of-pace role as a trigger-happy man in black and Yaya DaCosta as a city employee with a few cards up her sleeve.

Eventually Jackson and Holland’s gate-crashing, corpse-dumping shenanigans will land them an audience with the formidable head of the Justice Department — who, as played by Kim Basinger, naturally triggers flashbacks to “L.A. Confidential.” Here, as in that contemporary noir classic, Crowe is playing someone who likes to beat up bad guys who just won’t leave nice girls alone. But the key difference, and the joke of the movie, is that this time his character harbors no delusions of chivalry. He’s all business all the time, whether he’s lecturing an overly eager interrogator on the finer points of torture or efficiently putting someone out of his misery. Oh, did I break your arm? Had to, sorry. It’s nothing personal.

Which, in the end, more or less sums up “The Nice Guys,” an unwieldy pop pastiche that has some fun with its tacky ’70s duds but is mostly content to regard its milieu and its material from a snarky distance. By the time the rambling, bullet-riddled endgame arrives, it’s clear that this slapdash star vehicle is, with apologies to Dashiell Hammett, very far from the stuff that dreams are made of.

‘The Nice Guys’

MPAA rating: R for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use. 

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: In general release

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