The 1970s are a ripe period for comic writers – outlandish clothes, supersized politics, society-shaking trends, the overflow of free love and liberal values from the unconstrained ’60s, and the list goes on.
Which is possibly partly why writer/director Shane Black (who co-wrote the screenplay with Anthony Bagarozzi) decided to base The Nice Guys in 1977 at the tail end of a decade where the certainties of life had been well and truly upended.
But what defines this highly amusing film isn’t so much when it happens, although that is a major part of the proceedings, but who makes it happen – thug for hire with a heart of gold Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and private detective and devoted dad Holland March (Ryan Gosling) who after an initially violent meeting come to form the most unexpected of partnerships.
A partnership that in actuality and spirit mostly closely resembles that of great comedy duos such as Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis, with Healy playing the straight man to Gosling’s March, the actor displaying previously unrealised comic timing that damn near makes the movie.
Thrust into a conspiracy that reaches to the very heart of the Justice Department, and centres on a series of murders that seek to cover up nefarious goings-on in the auto industry – Detroit is rather ironically hailed throughout as the saviour of the United States, now and into the future – Healy and March, who is a devoted single dad to precocious 13 year old Holly (Angourie Rice) find themselves way in over their heads.
They know this, of course, but nevertheless dive into the gathering fray that involves porn stars (Misty Moutains played by Murielle Telio) and hitmen (Matt Bomer as the dapper John Boy) undaunted, convinced that finding the mysterious woman at the centre of it all, activist Amelia (Margaret Qualley) will be relatively straightforward and simply require the use of their existing skill sets.
This isn’t the case at all, and their flailing but miraculously successful attempts to continue their investigation, one which grows ever more perilous and yet somehow more humourous scene-by-scene, form much of the hilarity that marks this films.
And The Nice Guys is riotously, cleverly, scene-stealingly funny with pretty every joke landing perfectly, meaning the laughs come thick and fast.
Black and Bagarozzi move seamlessly between absurdist dream sequences, slapstick craziness – Gosling accidentally tumbling down a hill after trying to impress a woman at a party or swimming through a tank of naked mermaids are sights to behold – and hilarious, pinpoint-accurate witty retorts and asides, enlivening the film with jokes that don’t just land and disappear but which advance the plot and character development to boot.
That’s no mean feat.
Many buddy comedies often fail to move beyond rather basic one-joke premises or land their jokes successfully without really contributing to the advancement of their film in any meaningful way.
But The Nice Guys has you laughing at the same time as it switches on narrative lightbulb after narrative lightbulb, connecting the pieces of the investigative puzzle in ways that amuse, delight and enthrall in equal measure.
Sure it’s a frothy humorurous confection but it’s a very funny confection, one that doesn’t simply seek to come across as a series of forgetful jokes but wants to tell an engaging story at the same time.
The revelation in the midst of all the near-slapstick but still shocking murders and the chase scenes and violence is Gosling who imbues March, a man of dubious moral standards and life pragmatism who loves to drink almost as much as he devotedly loves his daughter, with likeability and the kind of comic chops that Lou Costello would instantly recognise.
There’s an amusing comic physicality to March throughout the film, never on better display that when Healy, who only a scene or so earlier has beaten March under the mistaken belief he is the real threat to Amelia, corners Gosling’s character in the restrooms at a bowling alley, surprising his quarry to the extent that March simultaneously attempts to stand up with his pants around his ankles, keep smoking, preserve his modesty with a news magazine and stop the toilet door from closing.
It’s the funniest scene in a film full of funny scenes and it demonstrates not only that Black and Bagarozzi have struck the right note with the movie but that Gosling was the right man to play the often comically-inept but miraculously successful March and that Crowe ins an inspired straight man to accompany him.
The Nice Guys ends up being a deliciously enticing mix of The Family Guy meets Naked Gun meets Hart to Hart and The Rockford Files, a film that manages to be both laugh-out-loud much of the time, touching – the scenes between March and daughter Holly are sweet if brutally honest – and gripping, constructing one of the funniest thrillers to grace the big screen in some time.
What works most profoundly for the film, which makes ample use of ’70s fashion, music and mores is that it doesn’t ever forget it is first and foremost a funny film, but that being funny doesn’t mean you have to be brain dead.
Much of the humour is character-driven, and clever, and never trivialises the story that its telling even though it would be very easy to do so.
And that is Black’s greatest achievement with The Nice Guys – it’s not some dumb comedy with no heart or substance; granted it will likely never win an Oscar for meaningful, intense drama but then that was never the intent.
Rather, Black has set out to a tell a timeless tales of two buddies who find themselves in way over their heads and yet somehow manage to come out the other side, not so much victorious – the film doesn’t pretend that their successes in the film will be life-changing or long-lasting; the world is a corrupt place after all that no happy ending can possibly erase – as unscathed and together, cautiously optimistic that maybe life doesn’t suck as much as they thought it did.
And while they’re changing things and trying to right wrongs, we’re laughing uproariously with them, thankful that there is at last a film that realises you can be funny and thoughtful into the bargain and even throw a giant smoking bee into proceedings and everything, for the audience and characters alike, will be just fine.
Once our sides stop aching from all the laughter at any rate.