The Nice Guys is an Abbott and Costello noir

Movie review: The Nice Guys

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe team up for a violent buddy comedy that plays like a tribute to the pratfalls of an earlier era

The Nice Guys

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe

Directed by: Shane Black

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Running time: 116 minutes

By Jay Stone

There’s a funny scene in The Nice Guys — an action-comedy-buddy film that fills the genre cracks with a generous serving of pratfalls — where a stumbling private detective named Holland March (Ryan Gosling) finds a gruesome dead body behind a tree. The sight robs him of coherent speech (another theme of The Nice Guys, actually) and leaves him gasping wordlessly — “Heeh-uh! Heeh-uh!” — in the manner of Lou Costello, the funny, rotund half of the old Abbott and Costello comedy team who was forever wheezing in terror over monsters and ghosts.

There are a couple of interesting things here. One is that Holland March sounds a lot like Holland Marsh, a swampy agricultural area north of Toronto where my grandfather used to go fishing back in the 1930s. Gosling was born in London, Ont., which makes you wonder if he wanted to pay tribute to Canada (possibly) or my grandfather (unlikely). On the other hand, he didn’t write the movie.

The other thing you gather is that The Nice Guys — a noir about dirty dealings in Los Angeles that plays like Chinatown on PCPs — is something of a hip, sexy, violent homage to the comedy stylings of Abbott and Costello, with the roles reversed: the lean Gosling plays the dopey comedian while his partner, a beefy Russell Crowe, gets the role of Bud Abbott, the humourless straight man.

Crowe plays Jackson Healy, an enforcer who might show up at your house wearing brass knuckles and punch you in the face for the crime of selling marijuana to 13-year-olds. He’s a tarnished angel and Crowe, carrying some 60 pounds of excess beef and waddling dangerously, plays it down the middle: he’s Bud Black, his character in L. A. Confidential, after a decade or so of pizza lunches.

Holland and Jackson pair up to find a woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley, which gives away that they find her, but don’t worry about spoilers in this madcap adventure.) Amelia may have something to do with the city’s porn film industry: in the opening sequence, an adult film star named Misty Mountains dies in a car crash that manages to throw off her blouse, revealing her cinematic assets and setting the tone (faux lurid.)

The movie also has something to do with air pollution. The Nice Guys is set in 1977, a time when protestors in gasmasks rage against the L.A. smog while the auto industry drags its feet on installing catalytic converters on its cars. It’s a sobering issue, and it’s part of the madness of The Nice Guys — whose raison d’etre is mostly to show Gosling falling off things — that such deep thoughts are included at all.

Director Shane Black (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Anthony Bagarozzi) pretty well invented the modern buddy comedy, having written the first Lethal Weapon movie in 1987 and navigating Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer through Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005. Here, he shows his expertise by tossing off the plot, which is just so much narrative sludge anyway, and focusing on a bunch of set pieces — a boozy party in the Hollywood Hills above the glittering city, an abduction by a giggling sadistic bad guy, an inspired confrontation in a toilet where Gosling has to juggle a cigarette, a gun, a newspaper and a pair of trousers around his ankles. They variously bring back the ‘70s, the history of L.A., or the time you tried PCPs.

The comedy involves Crowe scowling while Gosling falls down, and both actors turn out to be very good at it. Crowe doesn’t bring that much to the party beyond his bulk, but people used to undervalue Bud Abbott as well: a good straight man is like gold, and his glare helps put Gosling’s woozy private eye into sharp relief. Holland is a dope — it’s a role you can imagine being played by Nicolas Cage at his most outré — but he’s kept in line by his teenage daughter Holly, played by a self-possessed performer named Angourie Rice with a maturity that seems to belong in a different film. It’s a star-making turn.

There’s also a small part for Kim Basinger as a U.S. justice department official who’s after the car companies, and who also happens to be Amelia’s mother. Basinger was also in L.A. Confidential with Crowe, and if he looks a little worse for wear, she looks a little better for it. It would be better still if she could act, but her casting holds a certain nostalgia value.

That’s true of all of The Nice Guys. This is a loosey-goosey adventure that wears its considerable sex and violence pretty lightly. It’s entertaining and trivial, a Lethal Weapon for the new millennium. Except dopier.

THE EX-PRESS, May 20, 2016

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ReviewThe Nice Guys is an Abbott and Costello noir

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The Nice Guys: Director Shane Black, who invented the modern buddy comedy (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), casts Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a pair of mismatched detectives searching for a lost woman in 1977 Los Angeles. It's a noir filled with sight gags, and while it makes little sense, there's an Abbott-and-Costello humour that is entertaining. 3 stars out of 5 _ Jay Stone

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