The Nice Guys

Art can perform a lot of functions. We losers here at the Fraudsters Almanac tend to prioritize fancy-pants art, pieces that have something to say, man. We talk about The Lobster as a film instead of as a movie, and we politely shit on superhero movies as inarguably lesser work. The best pieces of art may have a strong emotional resonance, but they are also impeccably made, and speak to the human condition, or to contemporary psychological blindspots. I want the art I consume to make me feel and think.

But we Fraudsters also value art for its ability to entertain, to amuse, to distract. Maybe we value this to a lesser extent on average days, but on distinctly un-average days, when our lives are falling apart and we yearn to be anywhere but where we are, art can provide the escapism we desperately desire. On the bad days, I don’t care so much about structure or deeper symbolism. I just want a break.

Cue The Nice Guys. Directed and co-written by Shane Black, a veteran of escapist fare (my favourite being The Monster Squad), this is in most ways a buddy-cop movie. There are two novel conceits, though: it’s placed in the late 1970s, and they’re private investigators, not actual police. I could take or leave the 70s motif, but I’m a sucker for detective fiction.

One half the of the buddies is a brutal and sensitive Russell Crowe, who makes his living taking brass knuckles to unsavoury folks. The other half is a soused and snivelling Ryan Gosling, who has the detective chops but is too busy hating himself and bilking old ladies to be a good PI. Crowe and Gosling’s paths cross and they find themselves after the same young woman. Yes, they team up, and yes, they have interpersonal friction that they eventually overcome. It’s a buddy-cop movie. I could run you through the rest of the plot, but it wouldn’t be fruitful. Suffice it to say that there’s a MacGuffin and everyone is after it, including our two protagonists.

The Nice Guys isn’t a mind-blowing piece of film: its MacGuffin really is dumb, and the structure gets muddled and meandering around the middle of the movie. But as a piece of entertainment, there’s a lot to like about it. Its two leads are great and have strong chemistry. The script is often very funny, the dialogue well-delivered, and each scene is fun in its own right. There’s the right amount of callbacks for an action movie. Even the peripheral characters get decent, human moments amidst the slapstick and tough-talk. And despite it mainly being light fare, it has a couple of funny things to say about society and ends on a hilariously sour note.

There are a couple of major faux pas’s (I have no idea how to pluralize “faux pas”; I probably shouldn’t) that take some of the fun out of the film. Specifically, it opens with the whole naked-dead-woman thing, which Black also did in Lethal Weapon, almost thirty years ago. I guess he hasn’t learned his lesson. And in fact all of its women are relegated to diminutive roles, although Gosling’s on-screen daughter is maybe the most interesting character in the whole movie. It passes the Bechdel-Wallace test, but just barely. But if you can get over that this is a movie about dudes being dudes, it’s not the most egregious offender.

As a movie, it kind of sags in the middle; as a way to kill two hours, in a dark theatre with a beer and some Reese’s Pieces, it really did the trick. It’s the kind of thing I want to watch again with my dad, because he’ll love some of the back-and-forth banter between the buddies. Right now, with my life in boxes and my dogs unsettled before a five-thousand-kilometre drive, it was exactly what I needed.