Monday, April 3, 2017

The Nice Guys

2016's THE NICE GUYS attempts a tricky hybrid of traditional mismatched buddy comedy and eccentric indie-type humor and doesn't quite make the mark.  The movie's somewhat variable and confused tone might explain its box office failure, but nonetheless makes for an reasonably entertaining few hours.  I happen to enjoy both sorts of films, and stories that take place in the 1970s, so I was part of what is apparently a limited target audience.  I did not make it to the theater to see this movie, so shame on me.  Maybe I shoulder a small percentage of blame.  The fact that I picked the Blu-ray up at the library for a free rental recently does not absolve me any further.

Co-writer and director Shane Black, who wrote the original LETHAL WEAPON thirty years ago, helms this story of two slovenly, low rent private investigators who investigate the disappearance of a young woman named Amelia, whose absence is somehow related to the death of a porn star named Misty Mountains. Actually, Jackson (Russell Crowe, who's packed on the weight and reminds one of John Goodman) was originally hired by Amelia to put some muscle on Holland (Ryan Gosling) to keep his distance from her. Got that?  This is because Holland was originally hired by the aunt of Misty Mountains to find her.   Aunt Glenn (Lois Smith) is insistent that she saw her niece alive, even after her violent demise in a car wreck (which opens the movie).  Holland sniffs around and realizes Amelia's connection.  And here we are back at Point A.

The complexity of the story takes a bid from Raymond Chandler and maybe even Robert Towne, and with Los Angeles again the perfect backdrop. L.A. in 1977.  Ideal all around.  But figuring it out isn't too difficult.  I've made it sound far more impenetrable than it is.  The strengths of THE NICE GUYS are the characterizations and sometimes hysterical interplay of the two leads.   They're really not nice guys, by the way.  They're essentially immoral scumbags, not very bright, and not above taking advantage of their clients.  For example, Holland only hesitates for a nanosecond before agreeing to take on another missing persons case for an elderly lady who "hasn't seen my husband since his funeral."  When the P.Is first meet, Jackson breaks Holland's arm.  In the great buddy movie tradition, they begrudgingly agree to join forces, clumsily piecing together how a Dept. of Justice higher-up (Kim Basinger) fits in the story.  If you can't guess that within a minute of her introduction, invisible audience, you need to put the bong down.

Black does a generally good job of creating this off kilter vibe of both goofball and more oblique humor with a few big action scenes, but maybe there wasn't enough of either for summer audiences.  The effort to combine LETHAL WEAPON with THE BIG LEBOWSKI only succeeds in individual moments, though some of the more slapstick ones (my favorite - Holland's overthrow of a gun to Jackson) work best. Black plays homage to himself occasionally, as when Holland falls several stories out of a hotel window into a swimming pool while trying to best a criminal (who also goes down).

One element of THE NICE GUYS that really doesn't work is the character of Holly (Angourie Rice), Holland's precocious young daughter.  It's hard to say why Black makes her such an integral force in the plot.  She's smart and funny, but also slightly annoying, and her exposure to the porn world and some serious violence will make more than a few viewers wince.  I was also baffled by the inclusion of her heartfelt pleas to Jackson, on two occasions, not to finish off vicious bad guys as death hovers over them. Was Black trying to make Holly the one source of light in this cesspool? Not sure it fits with the rest of the picture's WTF attitude.  And that Holly also exhibits some of her father's cunning just makes it inconsistent.

I also wish someone would've have done their homework and not included songs in this movie that were recorded after 1977.  And that JAWS 2 billboard? Guys, that didn't open 'til '78! But I'm nerdy like that.....

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