There is something undeniably brilliant about Shane Black’s filmmaking voice. His action sequences unfold with a vitality and an unpredictable energy that is so undeniably his own; just when you think the scene is going one way, it goes an entirely different way (there is no better example of this than the opening sequence where a kid steals his father’s porno mag and lusts after the centerfold model – only to have a car careen down an adjacent hill and crash through the house with said model dying inside). The movie just pops off the screen with visual flair, surprising comedic flourishes, crackerjack dialogue and an unmistakable enthusiasm for these hardened but heart-centered characters and the tragicomic world that they inhabit together.
That said, I cannot help but feel that the style really does take center stage over anything resembling real substance. It’s like the plot, the action and the characters all serve as a mere prop for the overall mood and tone of the movie.
Nowhere is this clearer than with the characterization of one of the titular “nice guys,” private detective Holland Arch (Ryan Gosling). Black sets up an entire back-story where Arch’s weakened smell failed to alert him to a severe gas leak in a former home and thereby led to a fire that killed his beloved wife; now, Arch spends his days in a drunken stupor, resigned to being a “bad person,” making empty promises to his frustrated daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) that they will one day rebuild their family home on the now-vacant lot where the original disaster occurred. It’s an incredibly convoluted set-up – one that not only lacks any kind of resolution (we never see Arch come to terms with his wife’s death or go through any kind of meaningful grieving process, nor do we see him ever truly grapple with the consequences of his own self-centered guilt complex), but also fails to reflect a genuine character flaw or imbalance (are we really supposed to fault Arch for not smelling a gas leak? Is this physiological deficiency supposed to somehow be symptomatic of a deeper moral failing?). The set-up has all the makings of a substantive character arc on paper – Arch is a tortured, self-blaming widow who can’t stop punishing himself long enough to be a productive member of society – but it’s really nothing more than dramatic pretense, kind of like a perfunctory stab at character development because Black is savvy enough to know that there should be something – or, in this case, anything – driving his character’s malaise. Sure, it looks good but it’s the cinematic equivalent of a house of cards – a joke of a back-story that exists merely to explain the pretense of an inner conflict that exists merely to set up the required character transformation.
The whole movie operates like this: the story itself is a misguided mishmash of 70’s pornographic exploitation and automotive conspiracy; if you’re looking for a meaningful connection between these two industries, don’t hold your breath. Suffice to say, Arch’s investigation with unlikely partner Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) never penetrates the deeper realms of either stag films or the auto industry; instead, the movie very much dances around the central conspiracy, relaying it through dialogue-driven scenes that explain everything we need to know without ever showing either world in action. Whereas a movie like Chinatown actually uses the water scandal as a vehicle for unpacking a time, a place and an event that just reverberates with affluent corruption in every frame, The Nice Guys uses automotive deception as a mere vehicle for trotting out quirky characters doing quirky things in a quirky setting. In essence, it feels like The Nice Guys could feature any mystery, it in no way needs to tell the story of this particular mystery, it doesn’t really care about sexual exploitation or the threat of the the illuminati, it just needs something – again, anything – to create a context for its bumbling heroes and the assorted misfits around them. Ultimately, it makes for a complete tonal mess – The Nice Guys presents itself as a lot of things – existential malaise; hardened seventies neo-noir exploring the seamy world of pornography and ruthless greed; bumbling, farcical action; and, most ill-fitting of all, earnest sentimentality in the form of Holly who operates as a wholly unnecessary conscience for the piece. The movie thrives on its buoyant energy, on its infectious spirit, on its ability to undercut cliche at every turn; but, at the end of the day, The Nice Guys is simply too self-conscious and too scattered to serve as anything other than an ode to its own (admittedly likable) brand of neo-noir/seventies farce mash-up. It’s a shame because Shane Black is so supremely talented, and one can only imagine what he would do if his voice served an intentional, meaningful story.