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Front Page - Friday, May 27, 2016

Nice guys finish first

The Critic's Corner movie review

David Laprad

Some movies get everything right, or at least get enough things right you don't mind the things they get wrong. "The Nice Guys" gets just a few things right, but they were so right, I didn't mind the misfires.

Shane Black is the writer and director of "The Nice Guys." Black is the guy who wrote the first two "Lethal Weapon" movies, "The Long Kiss Goodnight," and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," all of which should put a knowing smile on the face of anyone who loves neo-noir mystery comedies. (He's also the writer and director of "Iron Man 3," but I'm not holding that against him.) Black does two things well: he writes great dialogue, and he nails the modern male friendship, especially the bonding rituals. Think Murtaugh and Riggs (Danny Glover and Mel Gibson) in the "Lethal Weapon" films.

Black's directing, however, was not one of the things he got so right in "The Nice Guys," although he did some solid work. He set the film in the Los Angeles of the '70s, on the fringes of the pornography industry. Black could have ladened the film with stylistic touches, but he chose a more subtle approach. The music, the scenery, and the clothes hearken back to that time, but Black didn't go overboard with them. There's a beautiful shot of the film's central characters, Holland March and Jackson Healy, driving down a boulevard in a convertible at night, and for just a moment, I could see a Tower Records and a couple of other icons of the age in the background. Black placed his viewers in a place and a time, but didn't let the film be about those things. This was a smart choice, partly because Black doesn't have the visual chops of Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, or any of the other directors that dabble in that decade, but also because it allowed him to focus on the best parts of the film.

The storyline would not be one of those parts. To put it diplomatically, the plot in "The Nice Guys" is ludicrous. I couldn't even begin to explain it, because for most of the film, nothing makes sense; you simply have to store the details in your memory in the hopes that Black will eventually tie everything together. He does, for the most part, but that doesn't mean the story is good; on the contrary, Black made some bizarre choices that defy even movie reality.

Take, for instance, March's 13-year-old daughter, Holly, becoming an active part of an investigation her father, a private detective, has undertaken. Holly improbably winds up at an adult party, consistently pieces together clues her dad overlooks, and even brazenly confronts an accomplished assassin. There's a running joke about March, a single father, being "Worst Parent of the Year" material, but some of the situations in which Holly becomes involved are so far-fetched, they took me out of the movie.

Black is also willing to sacrifice logic for a laugh, as he does when March and Healy dispose of a body they had no reason to move, and relies on coincidence and happenstance to move the plot forward.

Yet I had a great time. The interplay between Ryan Gosling as March and Russell Crowe as Healy is terrific. Gosling and Crowe have great chemistry, and "The Nice Guys" is at its best when both men are on the screen. Black also wrote some memorable dialogue, most of which had the small crowd with which I saw the film in stitches:

Holly, as she and her dad arrive at the adult party: "Dad! There are whores and stuff here!"

March: "Don't say 'and stuff.' Just say, 'Dad, there are whores here.'"

But the single best part of "The Nice Guys," with all due respect to Crowe, is Gosling. In a nut shell, he's hilarious. Give credit to Black for what he created on the page, but then applaud Gosling for what he did when the cameras were rolling. He not only perfectly conveyed every nuance of his less-than-likable character and skillfully milked every line of dialogue for every last bit of humor, but his physicality is off-the-charts funny. Take, for instance, the scene (glimpsed in the trailer) in which March tries to ward off Healy with a pistol while he's on the toilet in a men's room, or how Gosling channels Lou Costello when March stumbles upon a dead body in the woods at night.

For all of the things "The Nice Guys" gets wrong, Black gets enough things right to make the film worth seeing. Even if he had missed the mark on those things, Gosling alone would have been worth the price of admission. As it stands, though, "The Nice Guys" is the most fun I've had at the movies so far this year.

Three stars out of four. Rated R for violence, sexuality, nudity, language, and brief drug use.

David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.