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If you’re like me, you’re a sucker for vulgar comedies with smart-aleck, down-on-their -luck manly men whom America don’t love no more (not that these men care, of course). This isn’t all that rare, for American insight is often democratized. Shane Black — one of a few Hollywood writers worth much more than they’re making — is back in the movie business with the thing he loves best: The action-comedy. And in The Nice Guys, he’s shown noir done right.
Black made his fame writing Lethal Weapon in 1987, but self-destructed about a decade later. Between that first rise and fall, he acted in movies like Predator, wrote one of my favorite movies for kids, Last Action Hero — which includes the basic insight into Hamlet we all need — as well as The Last Boy Scout, which featured Bruce Willis’s second-best noble loser role. There were lesser achievements, too, but he was brought low. Then, in 2005, he directed his first movie, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a delightful mockery of LA noirs that revived Robert Downey, Jr.’s career, almost did the same for Val Kilmer’s, and launched that of Michelle Monahan, who looked like Miss America (I don’t mean a pageant). In 2013, Downey returned the favor to Black, helping him land the job to direct one of the more bearable blockbusters, Iron Man 3.
The Nice Guys is about 1970s LA and America: pornstars, hippies, the Big Three automakers, strange music, strange clothes, corruption, recession, and a country in a vaguely suicidal mood. Men are at their lowest and it’s not clear what’s left for manliness. Enter a vaguely dandyish private investigator named Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and a vaguely moral muscle-man named Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). The former shows real comic chops while the latter does a great job as the straight man. The bad guys are appropriately hair-raising and there is a girl who could not be sweeter, but who is too world wise to be thirteen.
Initially antagonists, March and Healy are both looking for a missing girl amidst of fog of mayhem, drugs, and murder. So far, so good, but the film delivers one surprise after another. The 1970s are portrayed in all their colorful vulgarity, with American freedom at its most confused, at least up until our own times.
The visual comedy and the staging are both excellent, the editing is hilarious, and the film has the guts to risk everything on two actors very much worthy their salaries. Gosling does clumsy comedy expertly, and Crowe is brilliant as an overweight, over-the-hill manly-man who — spectacles aside — is still plenty tough.
The plot is convoluted and attempts to figure out how chance and hard work go together, and what they say about American manliness: specifically, how manly men may take pleasure in beating up bad guys, but how America might need them, regardless. It shows wit at work in the best American tradition, aiming to be popular, but also setting the standards of what should be popular.
I’ve very mixed feelings on the meaning of the film but, for now, I’ll leave it at saying that this is the most fun you’ll have in a movie theater this year. If you ever liked buddy-cop comedies, The Nice Guys is what you’ve been waiting for. I was a bouncing baby boy in the fight against capitalism when Shane Black first made it in Hollywood and this is the first time I see an action-comedy in the theater. It’s everything people said it would be.Published in