Why Shane Black set The Nice Guys in 1977 instead of 1987 baffles me: it has the torpid rhythm, zombie’s touch for staging violence, and uneven comedy of Beverly Hills Cop 2. A decade after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang became a DVD cult item, the writer-director thinks the physical contrasts between Russell Crowe as a brawny enforcer and Ryan Gosling as a dimwitted private dick are enough to have audiences rolling in the aisles. Instead, The Nice Guys exemplifies why Hollywood can’t film comedies that take less time than drying your clothes using the cold setting.
The plot, such as it is, concerns the mysterious death of Misty Mountains, a decent name for a porn star. When her aunt hires Holland March (Gosling) to investigate, he learns that He’s In Over His Head; Amelia Kutney, see, doesn’t want to be found, and with Jackson Healy (Crowe) she can’t lose. Jackson roughs up Holland (not that he could do much with a PI who lost his sense of smell in a fight years ago). They team up upon figuring out that Things Aren’t What They Seem. Joining them is Holland’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), one of those smart aleck Hollywood kids ogled by Black’s camera even as Holland and Jackson defend her chastity. Then the bodies start to pile.
The Nasty Guy‘s peak is a party in the hills where emaciated young actors and actresses in plane-sized collars and bikinis do “crazy” things in hot tubs and dance to “Boogie Wonderland.” Gosling’s peak is an unintended drunken pirouette off a balcony for the sake of impressing a girl. In the time-honored tradition of actors playing dumbfucks, Gosling speaks molasses slow and squints. Black indulges him: after stumbling on a body Gosling does the year’s least convincing double take, not to mention that an Abbott and Costello skit nailed it when Gosling’s grandfather was a boy. He’s too smart an actor and in too trim a shape to play dissolution. Crowe does better – he can do this glowering palooka business without looking at the script. Kim Basinger, unaware that she was cast in a comedy, has a small part as Amelia’s mother.
But the party takes place when there’s almost an hour left in The Nice Guys. Black’s timing is on ‘ludes; he muffs an okay joke about bourbon martinis. He includes a sequence in which smog protestors stage a public sit-in that wouldn’t have been funny in 1977 either (it has the feel of jokes told by aging alcoholic fossils at a Dean Martin celebrity joke). Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wasn’t a giggle-a-minute either, but it got its frisson from casting Robert Downey, Jr. as a heterosexual. I also don’t remember it stooping to such grotesqueries as tossing women through windows either. The Nice Guys plays like a discarded action comedy script with jokes shoehorned in. There’s hardly a fresh thing in it. And the sentiment sticks in the craw. Directors shouldn’t use Gosling and Crowe if the line “It’s not common to find such nice people in this world” is used within five feet of them, ironically or not.