A new buddy action-comedy duo is freshly minted with the unlikely pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as rumpled private investigators in the ’70s-drenched “The Nice Guys.”
The Oscar-winning Crowe (“Gladiator”) and Oscar-nominated Gosling (“Half Nelson”) make the serpentine crime caper watchable even when it veers off track. They let loose and have fun with these lovable losers who wouldn’t be your first choice to call.
The plot is quite convoluted and takes us through a rambling mystery that’s ultimately forgettable. A girl disappears, and two hired rival detectives Holland March (Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Crowe) begrudgingly team up to earn much-needed cash.
They discover Amelia (Margaret Qualley) is tangled up in a porno movie that has a mission to expose corruption in the auto industry. Seriously. This is where we’re headed as we go through a smoggy, seedy Los Angeles in 1977.
Writer-director Shane Black, responsible for creating the buddy-action franchise of “Lethal Weapon,” excels at black comedy and snappy dialogue, but executed it savvier and clearer in the overlooked “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in 2005.
Not that the script by Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi doesn’t have its jaunty and nourish moments, but the uneven tone is jarring and the fuzzy plot takes awhile to focus with its extraneous shenanigans and many characters.
The body count is quite high as people connected to the whistleblower film are winding up dead, and the action gets bloody.
This is the kind of movie that we shouldn’t overthink. But we shouldn’t let it slide, either.
Gosling, who proved his comic mettle as the best host of “Saturday Night Live” this season, and Crowe, eager to shed his dramatic intensity, have a playful Abbott and Costello chemistry.
Gosling is terrific at the physical slapstick, as the bumbling one who gets himself into hilarious and dangerous predicaments, but also is quick with the verbal volleys. Crowe is a deft straight man, with looks that could kill.
As March, Gosling is a widower with a precocious 13-year-old daughter Holly, played by the promising Angourie Rice. She steals the movie out from under the adults, as she turns into a neo-Nancy Drew. (I spied those yellow hard-bound books in her bedroom, clever touch!)
The supporting cast is strong with Matt Bomer (“Magic Mike”) as a crazed assassin nicknamed John Boy — there is a running “Waltons” riff through the movie.
Jack Kilmer, Val’s son, is effective as Chet, an integral player in the renegade porno movie. Veteran character actors Keith David and Lois Wilson turn in customary good work.
Black, his cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (“Sherlock Holmes”) and production designers — art director David Utley and set decorator Danielle Berman — capture well the scruffy decadence of the late 1970s, with incredible kitschy detail. Kym Barrett’s costume design accurately depicts the slick fashions of the era’s disco lifestyle.
The score by John Ottman and David Buckley is a delightful throwback to 1970s TV crime dramas, usually from Quinn-Martin Productions.
What Doesn’t Work
However, the choices for representative super hits from the decade fail in continuity. “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes came out in 1978 and “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire was released in 1979. So unless this movie was future time-travel, they got that wrong, which is perplexing for a film so concerned with pop culture minutiae.
The overstuffed plot and overzealous nature of the film prevents it from standing out as one of the year’s best reasons to see it at the movies. But expect more wackiness from another Crowe and Gosling pairing — that’s a certainty.
‘The Nice Guys’
- Director: Shane Black
- Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer and Kim Basinger
- Rated R (for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use)
- 116 minutes