Ryan Gosling, as famous for his abs as for his acting, can mount character-driven indies on his ripped shoulders like a nouveau Brando. He can be charming like Clooney or evoke an existential crisis with the mere words “I drive,” like a wounded, introverted De Niro.
The heartthrob from The Notebook has developed into one of the best actors of his generation, actively transcending his on-screen persona and seeping so far into characters we forget that he’s a movie star. Somehow, even as his past roles have been iconized, Gosling has reinvented himself, peeling off yet another layer of skin to reveal a new one. His work in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, where he plays a bumbling PI, is another testament to his versatility.
Fermented in nostalgia, The Nice Guys gets you high on ‘70s Los Angeles’ smoky air. A porn industry party is uncannily similar to that of a corrupt automotive company later in the film; a very un-PC educational video is shown in a classroom; and a haze of paranoia from Watergate and the Cold War looms over everything.
Shane Black (Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) seems to have shaped his narrative and set-pieces around the era’s weirdness, guiding us through a time when porn was in bed with politics and a hippy’s experimental porno was the only way to save the birds from a car company’s pollution. The world of shaggy carpets and open shagging is the villain, making it difficult for our very flawed and very groovy heroes to solve the case.
This is the rare Hollywood comedy that is vulgar and clever, and accessible without pandering. I appreciate The Nice Guys as much for what it is as I do for what it isn’t. Here is a groovy comedy with an engaging plot that doesn’t rely on dick jokes to keep our attention. It’s an accessible film that is about something, and doesn’t make a big fuss.
The Nice Guys is drenched in nostalgia and fantasy, but at times it feels soiled by it. In an opening vignette — which works as an effective short film on its own — a young boy steals his dad’s porno mag, only to find the naked body of the porn star he was ogling dead in the backyard moments later. What was once titillating becomes grotesque. The corpses pile up at the edge of the frame during the funny action scenes. Black’s camera takes a second longer to process what Holland March (Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) are actually doing. March’s tween daughter, who seems to find herself in the middle of everything, is the human character at this film’s heart, a voice of reason in a sinful cesspool.
The humour is mostly performance-based. The story climaxes with a loud shoot-out that forgets the central theme. In this bleak world, even the nice guys have a rough edge. Healy and March are only heroes because they’re slightly better than everyone else. Russell Crowe — who plays the straight man — and the script by writer-director Black elevate this buddy action-comedy to a level that is respectable, yet hardly original. This is mostly a silly, entertaining film, and Gosling uses it to forge another tool for his toolbox: a mode of physical and improvisational comedy that is erratic yet calculated.
With daring choices and a consistent track record, Gosling, a sex symbol with a pretty face and pretty abs, has proven to be a pretty great actor as well. He is a Hollywood stud whose films you can go to for the brawn, but stay for their brains. Although you could be deceived by what seems like dumb slapstick in The Nice Guys, it’s a film with more on its mind than your average coked-out comedy.