There is a moment in “The Nice Guys” where I decided to forgive the film for just about anything – any anachronistic ’80s film leering and foolishness, any unfunny cynicism, you name it.
It’s like this: Ryan Gosling is a fellow whose precocious 13-year-old daughter tells him he is “the worst private eye in the world.” He and a thoroughly disreputable good guy thug (played by Russell Crowe looking every bit as disreputable as intended) team up to look for a porn star in 1977 Los Angeles.
So, of course, they go to a party full of half- and full-naked women and much substance abuse. And yes, the 13-year-old finds a way to tag along. Gosling – whose fictional name is “Holland March” – drinks more than his share. His partner’s and everyone else’s too.
So in full comic movie star inebriation, he falls down a steep hill. He passes out and wakes up next to a corpse whose face has an ugly bloody mess where its right side used to be.
So Gosling – bless him forever – does a Lou Costello fear-stricken asthma take. In other words, he tries to call out for his partner elsewhere at the party but instead of words, the only things that come out of his mouth are terrified yammering wheezes. (For Costello’s all-time greatest asthma take, see the Abbott and Costello masterwork “Hold That Ghost” co-starring Joan Davis.)
That, I submit, is what’s impossible to dislike about “The Nice Guys” – the actors who are getting to be funny men on film for the first time and taking advantage of the opportunity.
It’s the new film by Shane Black, the inventor of the “Lethal Weapon” franchise and a guy once known as the highest-paid scriptwriter in Hollywood. He proved, decades later, that he had the 21st century knocked too when he wrote and directed “Iron Man 3,” the best of the “Iron Man” movies and a comic book movie so cool that Bill Maher and Joan Rivers had cameos.
Black is a fellow with so much chutzpah that he actually got away with making a movie that stole its title from the title of one of Pauline Kael’s volumes of movie reviews (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which Kael herself stole from an Italian movie poster).
“The Nice Guys” is full of comedy bits that don’t work along with the ones that do. It’s also full of nasty bits that are funny but unpleasant. (Black’s treatment of a sweet little old lady with Coke-bottle glasses is not nice. But he knows that to a full third of his audience, the very idea of a sweet little old lady with Coke-bottle glasses is regrettably funny in and of itself.)
Crowe is astonishingly apt as a sleazy thug here – significantly overweight, badly dressed and socially unacceptable in almost every way. “I don’t have a title,” he tells us in an early voice-over. “I’m not in the Yellow Pages.” But he’s the guy to call, for instance, if your underage daughter is running around with an older guy tempting her with his weed. That’s an encounter the Untitled One will ensure doesn’t happen again. Bones may be broken – and he’ll be able to name each one.
The movie begins with the death of a porn star named Misty Mountains whose car crashes into a house. For some reason, she’s naked in the car at the time. A young boy who’s a fan covers her up respectfully.
The 13-year-old daughter of our scummy, hard-drinking private eye (Gosling) insists, whenever possible, on stowing away with her old man and his brutal new frenemy, while they provide living examples of many of the things that can go wrong in the behavior of those with Y-chromosomes.
Before the film is over, nastiness is aimed in all directions – at little old ladies, dumb guys who drink too much at parties and fish innocently swimming in the wrong aquarium.
Greedy little boys brag about their porn star endowments, and Kim Basinger shows up momentarily to be the villain in the piece.
The bone-crunching action stuff is watchable even if some of Gosling’s slapstick isn’t.
But it’s the thought that counts, don’t you think? And when major heartthrob Gosling does a truly inspired, full-on Costello, I tell you, it’s right up there with former pretty boy Mel Gibson doing Curly from The Three Stooges in the “Lethal Weapons” movies.
It’s not our fault if Gibson later found ways to humiliate himself without anyone laughing.
Crowe and Gosling are having some career fun here. It’s just contagious enough if you don’t expect too much more than that.
“The Nice Guys”
2.5 stars (out of four)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger, Keith David and Matt Bomer
Director: Shane Black
Running time: 116 minutes
Rating: R for violence, sexuality, nudity, language, brief drug use.
The Lowdown: Two grungy L.A. private eyes search for a missing porn star.