The 1970s is considered one of the greatest eras for movies, with top directors like Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Sidney Pollack, and Sidney Lumet turning out classics like “Nashville,” “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II,” “The French Connection,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “Network.” But the '70s was also a period of excess and tackiness, exemplified by garish home styles (shag carpeting, avocado-colored appliances) and wide-lapelled polyester suits. This latter example of the 1970s is lovingly recreated in the “The Nice Guys,” a comedy about two hapless detectives trying to solve a murder in 1977 Los Angeles.
Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a bumbling private eye who drinks too much yet still struggles to make a decent home for his too-smart teenage daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). After an unpleasant encounter with fellow detective and muscle Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), the two discover they are on the same case – investigating the murder of porn starlet Misty Mountains and a missing woman named Amelia that everyone in L.A. seems to be after. Reluctantly they team up, and through their hapless and at times bumbling work, they gradually uncover a greater conspiracy and become targets of a psychotic (and genuinely scary) hit man named John Boy. (Seriously.)
The plot really isn’t the focus of “The Nice Guys” (and honestly the mystery and resolution is one of the film’s most convoluted and weakest elements). Instead the story wisely focuses on the interplay between March and Healy (and the relationship between March and his daughter), while poking good-natured fun at the aforementioned excess of 1977: the styles, the drug-fueled parties, disco, gas guzzling cars and air pollution (the later figuring prominently into the so-called “conspiracy”). Overall the movie succeeds due to the terrific performances of Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, Keith David, Matt Bomer, and Kim Basinger (reuniting with her “L.A. Confidential” star Crowe in a small but memorable role).
Best of all, the film successfully combines the comedic elements with some graphic moments and over-the-top violence (a couple shoot-outs are quite intense). There’s no doubt these guys are in over their heads and could be killed at any minute (likewise young Holly whose emulation of her dad’s work puts her at great risk). And the recreation of the period is remarkable (although some songs on the soundtrack are from several years after 1977. Is it that hard to get this detail right?). In addition, the plot is overly complicated. Perhaps a couple more drafts of the script could have simplified things a bit. Still, co-writer/director Shane Black (“Lethal Weapon,” “Iron Man 3,” and the excellent “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which is closest in tone and spirit to this film) has made a loving homage and spoof of detective films while putting his own twisted stamp on the genre.
“The Nice Guys” is a fun time at the movies. It’s one of my favorite films of 2016.