'The Nice Guys' movie review: 'Dumb caper with a sense of style, some decent jokes and nothing very much to say'
Our film critic isn't impressed by Gosling and Crowe's first attempts at black humour
After the press screening of 'Nice Guys' I heard a passing colleague mutter: "Whatever happened to Russell Crowe?" The question, while a little cruel, is understandable: up till say, five or six years ago, Mr Crowe was the go-to action star in Hollywood, a charismatic and intimidating performer who moved easily between blockbusters and heavyweight dramas. Then, as he inched towards 50, the big roles began to dry up.
A couple of duds ('Broken City', 'The Man with the Iron Fists') were enough to make such triumphs as 'Gladiator', 'Master and Commander' and 'A Beautiful Mind' seem like ancient history. Big Russ, it seemed, would have to reinvent himself: he has, though progress has been slow.
He's tried musicals ('Les Miserables'), directing (the commendably solid 'Water Diviner') and now turns his hand to comedy, though in 'The Nice Guys' he's wisely chosen to play straight man to Ryan Gosling's clown.
And perhaps fittingly, Shane Black's action comedy is a period piece, set in the 1970s and packed with in-jokes and not always subtle cultural references. It attempts to marry film noir conventions with the 80s buddy action genre and a more contemporary kind of low comedy: it succeeds, sometimes, despite its shambolic plot.
When a porn star with the appalling professional name of Misty Mountains dies suspiciously in a spectacular car crash, the young woman's aunt approaches Los Angeles private detective Holland March (Mr Gosling) claiming she's seen her niece alive.
As the lady is chronically shortsighted, March is initially dubious, but then realises she may have seen a missing girl called Amelia Kutner, who'd been working in the same porno movie as Misty, and acting as her double.
Amelia doesn't want to be found, and hires a burly enforcer called Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to intimidate Holland into dropping the case. But after a shaky start, the two men realise that their interests coincide, and join forces to find Amelia and expose a wider vice ring.
Shane Black's film is sharper in tone than the likes of 'Beverly Hills Cop', less irretrievably daft than 'Lethal Weapon', and seems at first glance to have a satirical agenda that reminds one of Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Inherent Vice'. But this cultured veneer is merely that, and 'Nice Guys' is a dumb caper with a sense of style, some decent jokes and nothing very much to say for itself. I didn't much care for 'Inherent Vice', but it had many more layers to it than this.
And in a way 'Nice Guys' is a kind of fan's homage to the films and fashions of the 1970s rather than a drama that's actually set there. The two detectives pass long queues at the petrol stations, and there are jokes about TV shows like 'The Waltons' and 'The Brady Bunch'.
But this is a caper, pure and simple, another pyrrhic victory of style over substance. It's a half-hour too long, but works at times because of the unlikely chemistry between Russ and Ryan.
Mr Gosling is as new to comedy as Mr Crowe, but embraces it fearlessly in a role that requires little dignity and plenty of pratfalls. For Holland March is clever but accident-prone, a glaring exception to the super cool movie detectives that prowled around Los Angeles in the smog-ridden 70s. His many disasters, and Mr Crowe's stony-faced reaction to them, provide the funniest moments in a film that's not quite as charming as it thinks.
Kim Basinger pops up now and then as a kind of vintage femme fatale, but 'Nice Guys' is given a welcome dose of heart by a much younger actress, Angourie Rice, who plays Holland March's astute and long-suffering teenage daughter.
He's a poor father, and she's well aware of his shortcomings, but they love each other, an emotion that charges the only really believable relationship in this film.
As for Russ, he acquits himself well enough, but Will Ferrell will not be quaking in his boots.
The Nice Guys (15A, 116mins)