Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Cool To Be Kind

Year: 2016
Director: Shane Black
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

If you pretend that Shane Black was never courted by the Marvel universe, he’s the least prolific, most exciting genre-bending pastiche artist in Hollywood today. He’s obviously written classic action flicks like Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero, but today I’m largely concerned with his directorial output: He burst onto the scene (which he then immediately burst off in a puff of smoke) in 2005 with the sharp neo-noir mystery comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film I utterly adore. 

But he’s finally back after a frustratingly prolonged radio silence. I haven’t seen his Iron Man 3 all the way through (though I have seen the opening scene half a billion times while babysitting a toddler with a short attention span), so I have no opinion on it, but if his 2016 effort The Nice Guys indicates any sort of pattern, I look forward to a decade from now when he knocks out yet another crime-comedy masterpiece.

Although I certainly wouldn’t complain if he picked up the pace a smidge.

It’s the 1970’s. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a thug for hire, beating up people who have done bad things. One of said people is Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a widowed private detective who shoulders easy cases for batty old women in between (and sometimes during) getting sloshed. He has been searching for Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who may be the missing link in the case of a murdered porn star, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Amelia pays Jackson to get Holland off her case then disappears, leaving them to join forces to find her before it’s too late. Tagging along is March’s plucky tween daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who – in typical Hollywood fashion – is far more capable and clever than her ne’er-do-well dad.

Though she doesn’t have quite as magnificent a moustache. 

Playing on TV in the background of a certain scene is an episode of Get Smart, a show which certainly informed the comic ineptitude of our very own Mr. March. If it hasn’t been made clear already, let it be known now that – while The Nice Guys is a solid mystery pastiche, it is first and foremost a character-driven comedy, pitting two buddy cop archetypes against one another in a realm of sophomoric, clever, sometimes intimidatingly intricate humor.

If there’s one thing that Shane Black (co-writing with Anthony Bagarozzi) does best, it’s grafting comedy onto an utterly alien genre framework, and his two stars serve him well. Crowe is excellent as the surly straight man who powers the film’s emotional throughline, but Gosling outdoes himself here, undermining his typical ultrasuave pretty boy act. Holland march is a real loser, and Gosling isn’t afraid to embrace that, painting a weak-willed character with girlish shrieks, fumbling blocking, and a sorely misplaced confidence that unequivocally earns that comparison to Maxwell Smart. He just goes for it, and he’s a surefire success at being a failure.

But let’s not downplay Angourie Rice, who plays against the big boys with aplomb. The virtually unknown Australian actress (unless you’re a rabid fan of Walking with Dinosaurs 3D) gives a consummately professional, sharp performance that shows she actually is as clever and alive as her role, instead of just reciting a script. It takes real talent to purposely layer that kind of childlike naïveté over a naturally smart character, a talent that should have taken decades to develop. She’s frustratingly good, to the point that I’ve rethought every single decision that led me to being 21 years old and not yet a massive movie star. 

This chick is a lead in a major motion picture. At 13, I was still drinking Tang and leveling up my Ivysaur.

It’s a funny cast so it’s a funny movie, though the script is so solid that it would still be the most laugh-out-loud movie of the year so far if they had cast Dane Cook and Larry the Cable guy. There is an astonishing level of control apparent in this screenplay, hammering out joke after joke that are all funny in their own right, but turn out to be setups for third act surprise punchlines that explode your gut like land mines. This is a movie that manages to imbue comedy into both dialogue and action sequences, wave intricate layers of jokes in the moment and the long term, and on top of that have time for a fiddly little structural joke on the sidelines: recurring imagery of birds and bees, presumably meant to evoke the film’s salacious subject matter.

It’s a snappy, clever film that’s a relentlessly entertaining thrill ride, though there are certain jigsaw pieces that don’t quite fit. A couple of character details (especially between March and his daughter) don’t get any payoff, leaving some emotional loose ends. Their connective tissue is presumably slowly bleeding out on the cutting room floor. However, these infractions are very slight. The Nice Guys tells the story it wants to tell with verve and audacity, and if it’s not one hundred percent pristine, that’s not really its problem.

Plus, although Shane Black the director tends to stay out of the way of Shane Black the writer, there are some neat visual gags during action sequences that make great use of the frame’s background to paint a complete tapestry of carnage. The visual style isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it’s kinetic and knows how best to serve its comedy, which is the one true reason it exists.

Is The Nice Guys quite as perfect on the first viewing as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? No way. But I can’t stop thinking about it, making it easily one of the best movies of the year. If this flick doesn’t land in my December Top 10, then this might just be the best year Hollywood’s ever had.

TL;DR: The Nice Guys is an excellent crime comedy, and a worthy followup to the director’s terrific debut feature.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1007

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