Not since Blue Ruin has a movie gotten as much mileage out of having its hero fuck up as The Nice Guys does. Shane Black’s entertaining but shaggy homage to The Rockford Files-era detective series and mid-to-late 1970s cheese finds its offbeat gumshoe in Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a smartass with no sense of smell who tends to make bad guesses, lose guns, misread addresses, drink whatever’s handed to him, and defenestrate himself repeatedly; early on, he tries to break into a window, only to slice his wrist up so badly that he passes out from blood loss. Structured like a TV pilot, the movie partners March with Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), the Yoo-hoo-loving goon who broke the private eye’s arm just days before, in the search for a missing activist.
Though the opening titles name a specific year, the viewer should ignore it. The real setting is a slightly anachronistic Los Angeles limbo where billboards for Airport ’77 and Jaws 2 tower over an intersection and worries about pollution, gas shortages, and killer bees are in the air. Healy, gut sticking out from under his blue leather jacket, lives monkishly in a converted office in the back of The Comedy Store in West Hollywood and is basically a psychopath. March, wearing a trimmed Van Dyke beard with his plaster cast tucked into an unbuttoned shirt cuff, makes his living fleecing old ladies and depends on his precocious middle-school-age daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), to be his secretary.
In keeping with Black’s irresistible mismatched-buddy action flick formula, the men find themselves in increasingly gruesome trouble, sometimes with Holly in tow, menaced by a trio of dapper Detroit hit men who are looking for a porn flick said to contain coded clues about a corporate conspiracy. (This Pynchon-esque subplot is left under-explored, unfortunately.) Black, who hit it big straight out of college with the screenplay for Lethal Weapon, has made a career out of a “have your cake and eat it, too” mentality, deconstructing clichés even as he gorges himself on them. Because it lacks the motormouthed mania of his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys occasionally gets dragged down by its generic plotting, generic villains, and a half-assed redemption arc in which Healy tries to better himself in Holly’s eyes.
Which is to say that anyone hoping for the verbal and conceptual excesses of The Long Kiss Goodnight or The Last Boy Scout may be disappointed, despite an outré opening sequence that links violent death, cheesy erotica, and teenage guilt. (Not to over-psychoanalyze, but given that The Nice Guys is set somewhere during Black’s teenhood years, the scene comes across as creepily personal.) But Black’s odd-couple patter—here injected with period-specific references to The Waltons and Mikhail Baryshnikov—and knack for the occasional gory surprise is enough for a movie to coast on. Gosling and Crowe’s comic rapport is a big factor. Going along with the ’70s vibe, the former aims for a sweet spot somewhere between Bruce Dern and Elliott Gould, while the latter plays gruff with a hint of self-parody. (Crowe’s L.A. Confidential co-star, Kim Basinger, pops up too, stiff as a wax figure.) The Nice Guys is funny enough when it sticks to its heroes—whether pinned in a tight spot or bickering with each other—that its less-than-compelling intrigues and digressions come as an acceptable trade-off.