When it comes to adding to the canon of a genre, sometimes a film doesn’t need to transcend. Sometimes, all it needs to do is execute at a high level. Indeed, there is something to be said for being good at one’s job.
Set in 1977 Los Angeles, THE NICE GUYS begins with the spectacularly dramatic death of a porn star. Her departure tangentially ties together two separate private investigations.
On one end, we have a private eye named Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) who is trying to track down a young woman named Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley), a girl who seems to have been drifting into the world of underground film (which, in the 1970’s came with dirty connotations). As Healy starts to put pieces together, he is approached by all sorts of ne’er do wells who want him to mind his own business.
On the other end, we have an investigator named Holland March (Ryan Gosling) who is tasked with looking into the suicide of the porn star. Her aunt swears to have seen her through an apartment window three days after her death. So was her death, perhaps, a ruse to stop people from looking for her, or is the old woman crazy?
When Healy’s search for Amelia points him towards March, at first he believes him to be a suspect in the case. Soon enough, he realizes that with more nefarious characters taking interest in his case, March is not only innocent but likely a useful ally.
Approaching March however isn’t strictly a two-party bargain.
March is such a mess after losing his wife in a house fire that his daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is pretty much tethered to his hip. Primarily, she is there to look after him, instead of the other way around. She makes sure he doesn’t drink too much, drives him from A to B, and often lends a hand in his professional affairs.
So it is that Holly, March, and Healy search the glamorous and grime that is late 70’s L.A. for Amelia Kutner – a woman who is both a social activist, a potential actress, and the daughter of a the head of the justice department.
It becomes the tumble down the rabbit hole that you might expect.
THE NICE GUYS earns its chops in its execution. There’s a timing, framing, and patience to the film that allows its best beats to properly flourish and allows its punches to land. It underlines our heroes talents and their shortcomings, while playing up both the absurdity and the danger of their predicament.
Even the film’s opening becomes a beautiful visual metaphor. A boy sneaks into his parents’ room in the middle of the night, steals a porno mag from under his father’s side of the bed, and creeps away. Moments later, the very woman in the magazine he has stolen careens down the valley towards his house and crashes her car through the hallway meeting an untimely demise.
On the one hand we see the nature of pornography as forbidden fruit for a certain age of American male, and the secrecy with which it is obtained. On the other hand, we see how destructive a world it can be for those who are in it, and the dangers they take on.
In the hands of a lesser team, this sort of cleverness would be lost in a mess of poor pacing and messy composition. In this film, it plays wonderfully as a preview of the mayhem to come.
That sort of balance applies to our heroes as well, who on one side all seem to be tropes of a genre, but on the other side are all multifaceted.
For Healy, it’s about being a folk hero who has precious little to show for it. He’s a man who carries out justice for a fee, and yet he is defined by a moment when he did it because it was just “the right thing”. It hasn’t got him any further ahead, hasn’t allowed him any leg-up in his unspectacular life, and yet it’s what gets him recognized.
Meanwhile for March and Holly, there’s the lingering spectre of the loss of a wife and mother. It has created a world for them in which March is the primary caregiver – but just barely. Holly does the driving, sometimes Holly even does the talking. March isn’t a complete lost cause though, he still has enough brains in his head to put the clues of a case together and know who might be able to give him an answer.
He’s a screw-up, but not so much of a screw-up that he can’t do his job and pay his bills. Watching her, you can see why he usually seems to have her nearby. Watching him, you can see why she still believes in him.
If there’s a flaw in THE NICE GUYS, it’s that it doesn’t transcend in any way that will stay with you after the film ends. There’s not much of a theme or an undercurrent that goes beyond the genre to say something relevant to our life and our world. What one has to ask oneself is whether or not that matters; if every film needs to “do more” or whether something can excel within its own genre.
For my money it can, and for my money THE NICE GUYS does. It won’t get spoken of as one of the best movies ever – or even of this year. However, it’s handily one of the best buddy cop movies I’ve ever seen, and that’s an achievement all its own.