Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature
On the commentary track to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, director Judd Apatow says the problem with doing a movie joke about pornography is that the joke itself can too easily become pornography.
That is the essential problem of director Shane Black's The Nice Guys.
The story takes place in 1977 Hollywood. The movie begins as a young boy sneaks in to his parents room at night to steal his father's pornography magazine to view. As he does, an out of control crashes through the house. The boy discovers the driver laying on the ground outside dying, a very voluptuous naked woman. As she dies he covers up her nakedness. I was hoping that this opening scene would indicate how the rest of the movie was going to move from titillation towards dignity. But that never happens.
This death sets off a series of events that puts together two unlikely heroes. The first is Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a world-weary muscle for hire. If you need someone roughed up, Jackson will do it. His works forces him to encounter Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a mediocre private investigator who seems more interested in getting drunk and milking naive old ladies than finding the truth. Circumstances force them to work together to find Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a missing teen who knows too many secrets. Along for the ride is the smarter-for-her-age Holly (Angourie Rice), Holland's 13-year-old latch key daughter. Together, their journey will take them to the seedy, sensual, and violent underbelly of 70's LA.
The most positive thing I can is that Crowe and Gosling are great and they are great together. Their chemistry is charming and natural. Neither one outshines the other but the play off of their natural comedic instincts and rhythms. Crowe's rye deadpan makes for some big laughs and Gosling goes full Lou Costello at times, but he never falls into caricature. Rice is also particularly good, holding her own against these two movie stars. She conveys both intelligence and innocence in good proportion, which is essential to the character.
The story also has a fairly intriguing mystery that drips and drabs clues as the story progresses in a very satisfying way. I would even go so far as to say that there is an excellent detective/crime story in The Nice Guys. But it is buried beneath too much filth.
Rightly or wrongly, I have a high tolerance for vulgarity. I love aforementioned 40-Year-Old Virgin and Ted. But while they also saturated in mature content, they have two things going for them. The first is that they have an overall positive theme about growing up and moving into a more mature view of life and romantic love. The second is that the sexual content (while often talked about) is actually rarely shown. The Nice Guys has neither of these elements.
The movie doesn't necessarily have a bad theme, but like most noir-like movies, the morality is a bit ambiguous. Our heroes are fighting for some kind of justice, but they themselves are often morally compromised. The second problem is that there was too much nudity. There are significant portions of the film where I could not watch because of this, particularly in a scene where the main characters head to a party hosted by porn producer. Shane Black may have wanted to make a comment about the sleaziness of this world, but that message (if it is there) is corrupted by the content.
The other main problem is the presence of young Holly throughout most of the film. Her presence is meant to be a call to idealism and innocence for our cynical heroes. And while she sometimes serves this function well, it requires her to be a part of this horrid underworld. Having a young girl bear witness to these awful things feels perverse. I'm thinking particularly of a scene where she is at the party mentioned above and she is sitting there watching a porn movie with the actress who starred in it. Rather than this creating a redemptive desire for innocence in the porn actress, it felt instead like a corruptive fall from innocence for Holly. This objection I have to the movie may be my own idiosyncratic tastes, but I don't think I'm alone in how disquieting it is to bring a young girl into that world.
And it is a shame that this darker elements are present, because Black has a real knack not only for witty, satiric, and insightful dialogue, but also for filming action and comedy in a way in which neither is short changed. With some tweaks and self-censorship, the film would be so much better.
But the film is what it is. And while the guys in the film might be nice, the movie is not very good.
1 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.