Despite the stellar reviews and star-studded cast, it’s easy to see why The Nice Guys was a box-office flop. Its inconsistent marketing sold it first as a crime-comedy, then as a Goodfellas-esque period-piece, and then as a Tarantino-stylish action thriller. But in the end, while The Nice Guys certainly pulls elements from all-of-the-above, taken as a whole it ends up being none-of-the-above. The Nice Guys, instead, is a more akin to a light buddy-cop mystery with the know-how to make occasionally grim jokes. It won’t stick in your memory for more than a week, but it’ll be a damn fun romp if you’re willing to push past its oddball concept.
The titular “nice guys” are a bored-with-life detective (Ryan Gosling) and an aging muscle-for-hire (Russell Crowe), thrown together (along with the detective’s shockingly mature 13-year-old daughter, played by Angourie Rice in a hopefully breakout role) by a mystery involving an old woman with “coke-bottle” glasses, a lethal porno, and air pollution. It’s a delightfully wacky crime caper that stays surprisingly easy to follow, and while the ultimate conclusion may not cause the same forehead-smacking satisfaction of the best mystery films out there, the journey is so peppered with surreal and absurd situations that the destination ceases to matter.
Director Shane Black may not be pushing any cinematic boundaries (during its down time The Nice Guys often feels a bit like a TV movie), but his screenplay (co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi) hits all the right notes at the right times. The Nice Guys can transition from grim humor to light slapstick to serious drama remarkably quickly, without any of the whiplash that usually accompanies stories with this type of tonal and thematic breadth. It helps that the film’s stars share its scripts flexibility, simultaneously able to convey goofy and charming (on the part of Gosling) and brutal and apologetic (on the part of Crowe). Both actors flawlessly deliver dull-on-paper lines such that the script’s underlying wit shines through.
In the hands of a more style-driven director, The Nice Guys could’ve been something great. Instead it remains satisfied with “pleasant,” a fun film to get caught up in as simple escapism from the dreariness of everyday life. But The Nice Guys rarely strives to be anything more. It never aims for some broad observation of humanity, nor for particularly nuanced or human characters. That being said, it’s a shame that the film failed to find its audience, in the same way that similar (and far inferior) films like Central Intelligence did. Hopefully, as the years roll by, The Nice Guys will gain a small cult following and join the ranks of such delightful oddities as Silver Streak. But for now, at least, The Nice Guys finish last.