Shane Black put together what has become a major template in the buddy cop genre as the writer of “Lethal Weapon.” His design mostly depends on giving his characters snappy dialogue and letting that play out the action against a background that is slightly askew.
He uses that formula as the writer/director of “The Nice Guys,” a buddy crime story set in 1977. A series of murders and a missing woman bring private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and strong arm specialist Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) together. Neither man is especially competent but together – and with some help from March’s young daughter – they just might save the day.
The concept is solid and Black’s formula for this kind of film has worked before. Where “The Good Guys” goes astray is in Black’s decision to downplay the ‘70s as fodder for his script and the casting of Gosling as the quirky private detective.
Except for the fashions and cars, “The Nice Guys” could have been set in any time period. Black mixes in a few elements, such as the horrible smog that covered Los Angeles and the fear killer bees were going to end all life. But these are peripheral items. The ‘70s look like an alien time and that makes the era ripe for humor. Black opted not to make the time period the brunt of jokes and reduced the importance of the time period.
More attention on the time period would have distracted from the complete acting miss by Gosling. Danny Glover gave “Lethal Weapon” an extra element of fun by getting to watch the veteran dramatic actor deal with the humor. Gosling doesn’t have the same kind of appeal. Instead of coming across as a dramatic actor playing against type with the comedy, he ends up looking like a dramatic actor vainly trying to be funny.
Gosling’s fumbles are plentiful. But one is so bad it looks like a moment from the blooper reel slipped into the movie.
There’s a scene where Gosling’s character finds a dead body. He’s an investigator, so dead bodies shouldn’t be all that new. Gosling plays the scene like Lou Costello of the legendary comedy team of Abbott and Costello, with a long series of vocal struggles to make it appears he’s so afraid he can’t even scream for help. Costello did it much better.
One scene wouldn’t break the film. Sadly, there are plenty more., such as when he jumps into a pool to talk to a pair of mermaids. It’s the kind of move a bungling detective would have made during comedy movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In a modern film, even one set almost 40 years ago, the scene ends up trite and a waste.
Black’s characters have always handled comedy with a smart edge. Having Gosling play the character in such a slapstick manner never works. Gosling never seems comfortable with the approach.
Crowe is far better at pulling off his half of the buddy formula.
There is a loneliness and weariness to the way Crowe plays Healy that makes him both someone to fear and someone to embrace. Healy’s like a film noir detective – one who has been misplaced in time. It woks, whether he’s handing out brutal justice or sharing a few kind words with March’s daughter.
If there is a sequel, then Crowe should go solo or at least get a different partner.
Toss in wasted performances by Kim Basinger and Matt Bomer and “The Nice Guys” plays out with too many flaws to make it the next big buddy franchise. When it comes to the weekend box office race, don’t be surprised if “The Nice Guys” finishes last.
The Nice Guys
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Matt Bomer, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, Keith David
Director: Shane Black
Rating: R (language, violence, nudity, drug use)
Opens: Friday, May 20