Saturday. May 21, 2016.
Assiduously ignoring they’re stuck in the 1970s: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, and Angourie Rice in The Nice Guys.
The Nice Guys is set in L.A. in 1977 and there are moments when it looks like it was filmed in L.A. in 1977.
It looks more like it was filmed in L.A. in 1977 than some movies actually filmed in L.A. in 1977.
It looks more like it was filmed in L.A. in 1977 than The Rockford Files, and nothing looks more like it was filmed in L.A in 1977 than The Rockford Files.
And the movie doesn’t seem to notice this about itself. That is, Shane Black directs The Nice Guys as if he doesn’t notice this about his own movie or expect us to notice.
That’s the joke. The joke behind the jokes, at any rate. Black and his designers have meticulously recreated the look, feel, and sounds of that kidney stone of a decade and then Black’s proceeded as if he’s shooting a movie about the here and now in the here and now.
The effect is that The Nice Guys, for all its period detail, isn’t a period piece. It isn’t about the 1970s.
It’s less about the 70s than, well, some movies made in the 70s. The Nice Guys had me fondly recalling a trio of serio-comic detective movies from the time, The Long Goodbye, The Late Show, and The Big Fix. But not because The Nice Guys contains any specific allusions to them that I caught or that like them it satirizes life in L.A. in the 70s. In fact, I didn’t catch many specific allusions to any movies or TV shows from the 70s. Very little of the humor is based on observations of the fashions, politics, technology, or pop culture. There’s little commentary on the times at all. If anyone mentions Jimmy Carter I missed it. I don’t remember any obvious gags like the “science oven” in American Hustle. poking fun at the the now quaintly old-fashionedness of things that were avant-garde or cutting edge back then. The Waltons gets referenced in the darkest, most un-Waltonesque way imaginable in the person of a hitman who goes by the name John-Boy and looks eerily like Richard Thomas down to the mole.
The point of this lack of history is that the 70s were to people living then what 2016 is to us. Just the present. And they took their present for granted the way we take ours for granted. It was just the way things were or, rather, are.
The bad hair, the ugly clothes, the ridiculous posturing of so many supposed adults trying to be with-it like the kids. The banalities and absurdities of pop psychology and the nihilism and narcissism passing as an individualistic politics of embraced alienation that was hard to distinguish from sulking self-pity. The decadence that was sold as liberation. Disco.
At one point, people accepted all this as normal.
Most people. Some didn’t. At least two.
The heroes of this movie.
Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a freelance legbreaker and enforcer. Someone needs a debt collected or a blackmailer scared off, they call Healy and Healy pays a call that usually begins with the debtor or blackmailer getting punched in the face. After that, things get violent. Lately, though, he seems to be specializing in protecting young women from various kinds of sexual predators. Which is a way of saying he rescues damsels in distress.
Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a licensed private detective who may once have been as brilliant a detective as he thinks he is but who when we meet him seems to be specializing in easy missing persons cases that he pretends are taking a long time to solve in order to gouge his unquestioning clients out of money for “expenses.”
Healy and March meet up while working the same case but from different ends and at cross-purposes. Both are out to rescue the same damsel in distress, but they have different understandings of from whom and from what sort of distress.
The initial misunderstanding results in Healy paying a call on March with the usual introduction. However good a detective March was or is, he has a real talent for getting himself hurt.
The misunderstanding gets cleared up, although not without March’s experiencing a little more pain and humiliation, when Healy realizes his damsel client is in a lot more distress than she’d led him to believe and he doesn’t have the detective skills and experience he needs to help her. With no other option, he hires March to help him help her.
The two men are both good at what they do or at least good enough. But neither is particularly successful They’re not exactly hardship cases but they’re just getting by. The problem for both is lack of focus. Both are adrift.
Healy has recently had an experience that made him reassess his life and decide he wants to do something good with it but he has no idea how to change direction or what exactly to change it to.
March’s situation is sadder and more desperate, although he doesn’t seem to be aware that either’s the case. But then he’s in denial. His wife has recently died in an accident he blames himself for and he’s struggling to raise their junior high school age daughter Holly on his own, something he has no clue as to how to do. Meanwhile, Holly needs him to be twice the parent he was and twice the hero she’s always believed him to be, which means being twice as good a detective, and the trouble there is that in his grief March has lost interest in his work. He’s going through the motions with not just a lack of focus but a lack of emotion which leads to a lack of sympathy for his clients and that leads to a less than solid commitment to principle. He’s become a fraud and Holly is beginning to realize it.
What both of them need from Healy then is for him to turn March back into a good detective, and to do that Healy has to become a good detective himself.
Together they become a comedic, down-market, middle to working class version of Holmes and Watson, with March providing the detective’s deductive reasoning and Healy the good doctor’s emotional intelligence and physical muscle---Conan Doyle downplays it but don’t forget, Holmes is dangerous but Watson the ex-military man suffering from PTSD is deadly. The Benedict Cumberbatch-Martin Freeman BBC TV series keeps that fact in the foreground. Watson can and will kill you. Healy can and does kill. What he gets from March, though, is almost the opposite of what Watson gets from Holmes.
Through Holmes, Watson has opportunities for the action and adventure he craves and that give him channels for the pent up angers and energies left over from his service in the Afghan war. Through March, Healy is given the responsibility to think before swinging or shooting and to express his more domestic and tender feelings.
Both March and Healy are at odds with the times. Each in his way too nice to fit in. Despite the sloppiness of their personal lives and the grubbiness of their professions, they’re both rather strait-laced to the point of being prim, even prudish. In another age, when the role played by private eyes was taken by knights, they’d have been described as chaste. As loyal to their lost ladies-faire as Lancelot to Guinevere. March is devoted to the memory of his wife. Healy is bitter about marriage, his wife having left him for his father! But he’s faithful to the ideal of marriage and building a family together he thought they shared and by that he’s faithful to the ideal of the girl he thought he married. Which turns out to be the basis for his growing fondness for March. Healy’s quest isn’t self-redemption. It’s to save the March family and in doing that complete the adventure he thought he’d begun with his ex-wfe. In other words, he’s out to restore the fortunes of the wounded king and his princess.
I’m probably making too much of the knight-errant theme. But that’s what private eyes are. Knights-errant on quests to rescue people, particularly damsels in distress, ideal and idealistic heroes who are above and apart from the general sinfulness of their place and time. Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Travis McGee, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser---sometimes Parker made too much of this---Jim Rockford, all tough guys with rigid moral codes although with holes in them ---bullet holes---out to right wrongs and slay dragons.
March and Healy are more scattered in their thinking than their literary and cinematic forebears. Distracted might be the more apt description. And they’re not as smart. Not as sharp-witted or quick-minded, at any rate. And while the typical hard-boiled private eye is often temporarily deluded by a usually female client into thinking the world might be better than it is and finishes his story like Sam Spade, cruelly disillusioned, Healy and March are self-deluded, living in a dream world in which they are as stalwart, stoic, resourceful, and brave as Marlowe or Magee. They’re more like a pair of Quixotes than Lancelots or Galahads.
As usual for me, I’m making too much of the literary and not enough of the cinematic, which in the case of The Nice Guys means overstating the romance and ignoring the comedy.
I should have mentioned it before although you’ve probably heard. The Nice Guys is a funny movie.
There isn’t much of a plot. In fact, there’s barely a plot at all. What there is instead is a series of comic set pieces, action sequences, and incidents contrived to make it look as though Healy and March are actually investigating, following leads, gathering clues, and making deductions just like movie detectives are supposed to do. Not all of this is played for laughs. Most of the humor is due to the partnering of Gosling and Crowe as a pair of complementary incompetents in over their heads and at a loss as to what to do next.
After a nearly decade-long string of dark and darker movies that he seems to have chosen in order to shake free of typecasting as a romantic juvenile and establish himself as an anti-hero if not an out and out villain, (He worked Crazy, Stupid, Love in there but in that one he didn’t play a particularly, um, nice guy.) Gosling now seems set on reminding us of what he was up to ten years ago in Lars and the Real Girl, proving himself a talented comedic character actor. He was mordantly funny in The Big Short playing a wiseguy cynic with the gift of disingenuous gab. In The Nice Guys he shows off his considerable talents as a physical comedian.
In one of his best scenes, which you can watch in the trailers without its being spoiled because it’s a moment worth watching over and over, he does what amounts to a dance with a bathroom stall door. In another hilarious moment he channels the ghost of Lou Costello at his double-taking, scared speechless best. And I lost track of the number of ways he contrived to fall down, fall over, and fall into things.
Crowe is the straight man in the teaming and he more than Gosling retains some of his romantic leading man authority so Healy never becomes as clownish a character as March. But that doesn’t mean Crowe isn’t funny. What can be forgotten is that the straight man can get big laughs of his own by playing it straight. Without ever mugging it up, Crowe makes visual one-liners out of Healy’s expressions of bafflement, bemusement, exasperation, frustration, impatience, and resignation in response to the craziness around him
And it’s a generous performance. (The mark of good actors is their generosity to their co-stars and supporting players.) Crowe and Gosling are equally the leads in the sense of shared screen time, but Healy is the supporting character in that he subordinates himself to the goal of making March a success as a detective and consequently as a father and family man, and Crowe subordinates his performance to Gosling’s, content to play the lead in the scenes in which Healy’s going it alone.
The damsel in distress at the center of the story isn’t as much a character as she is a plot device---she’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin---and unlike typical hardboiled detective stories there’s no femme fatale, and since both Healy and March are, like I said, devoted to idealized women from their past, there’s no love interest for either hero. But that doesn’t mean The Nice Guys is without a female lead.
She just happens to be thirteen years old.
March’s daughter Holly, played by the now fifteen year old Angourie Rice, is her father’s Girl Friday, legman, driver (and, no, she doesn’t have a license. She’s too young. What’s your point?), nurse, and conscience. She latches onto Healy because she senses right away that he has the qualities her disappointing father needs to shape up and then finds that she has to keep Healy on the straight and narrow in order for him to do what she needs him to do. Rice gives Holly a perfect mix of enforced maturity and precious competence and a still young girl’s innocence and need to be taken care of herself. But while Holly thinks that all she wants is to have a father she can trust and rely on again, she also wants to be like him in being able to live a life of adventure and mystery. Rice makes Holly plucky, resourceful, independent, and self-assertive without a trace of brattiness. And it’s not just the case that she holds the screen with Gosling and Crowe. She’s clearly inspired them to step back and let her take over her scenes.
And she’s got terrific comic timing of her own.
One thing about The Nice Guys disappointed me. Although, like I said, the movie looks like it was filmed in L.A. in 1977, L.A. is actually pretty much missing from the story.
Timelessness can be a virtue. Placelessness usually is not. Los Angeles is not quite as there on the screen as the 70s but it’s there, vividly there, but it’s subject to the same treatment by Black. He doesn’t pay it any particular attention. The effect, though, is different.
Black calls attention to the 70s by not paying them particular attention and that’s the joke. But his not paying particular attention to L.A. just seems like an oversight.
March’s stated intimate knowledge of the city and its natives and their ways is a key to solving the mystery, whatever intimate knowledge of L.A. and its natives Black and his screenwriting partner Anthony Bagarozzi possess themselves hardly shows up in their writing
One of the jobs of fictional detectives is to be explorers and observers on our behalf. They’re our guides into strange new worlds populated by interesting and up till now unmet characters with personalities and behaviors shaped---or warped---by the way they’re forced to live to survive in the their peculiar world.
In the course of their investigation, Healy and March do a lot of running around town but they never seem to arrive anywhere that’s identifiably and unmistakably in L.A. From just about every place Healy and March lead us into L.A. seems to disappear as soon as they walk in and the setting becomes generic. We might as well be in Kansas City or Minsk as Southern California. (Inexplicably they never even get to the beach. I thought a scene at the beach was a requirement for every detective story set in L.A.) And the characters they introduce us to are mainly stock characters who could have been drawn from any run of the mill TV or movie detective story. And there aren’t that many of them either. L.A. comes across as strangely underpopulated.
Still, it’s a fun night out at the movies and I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel. And it got me thinking about some other movies I haven’t seen in a long time and now want to see again, like The Late Show and The Long Goodbye. It also got me thinking about what The Nice Guys would have been like if it actually had been filmed in L.A. in 1977.
Who’d have played March and Healy?
Buddy cop comedies weren’t a staple of the 1970s. Offhand I can only think of two, Freebie and the Bean and Cotton Comes to Harlem.
The more usual detective movie featured an alienated, angry, and conflicted hero operating on his own and that’s what Healy is to start. Clint Eastwood. Steve McQueen. Charles Bronson. Sean Connery. Burt Reynolds. James Caan. Richard Roundtree. They each played that sort of character and would have been fine as Healy.
But I’m thinking that Gene Hackman would have been the best choice because of the basic Everyman decency he brought---and still brings---to every role even his villains, which is what makes them so villainous, the fact that there’s a decent guy in there somewhere who’s decided to be evil and is enjoying it. And Crowe seems to me to be at the point where he could leave his romantic leading man past entirely behind and from here on out work steadily as admirably as his generation’s Gene Hackman.
Finding a March would have been tougher. It would have had to be someone who could play against his own image as a romantic leading man and handle the physical comedy. And I know just the guy.
He did it back then, in fact. In What’s Up, Doc? And there’s another movie from the 70s it’s time for me to see again.
As for Holly. There were two obvious choices, weren’t there?
Jodi Foster might have been the better choice because she was the better actress, but I’d have to go with the sentimental favorite. If we’re casting Ryan O’Neal to play March than who better to play Holly than his real life daughter?
And now Paper Moon just landed in the queue for a Mannion Family Movie Night.
The Nice Guys, directed by Shane Black, written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi. Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger, Amelia Kutner, Matt Bomer, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, and Jack Kilmer. Rated R. Still in some theaters.