A screwball murder-mystery of chance, discovery, dead ends and happenstance, "The Nice Guys" joins together two dramatic actors not typically known for their comedic stylingsRussell Crowe (2014's "Noah
") and Ryan Gosling (2013's "Only God Forgives
")and lets them loose to own their exceedingly fun roles. Taking a page from his 2005 feature debut "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," writer-director Shane Black has made a tonally spry escapade with undeniable parallels to Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" (1973), Ridley Scott's "Matchstick Men
" (2003), and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice
" (2014). Together, Black and co-scribe Anthony Bagarozzi pretzel-twist their plot while retaining a tongue-in-cheek lunacy and logic. "The Nice Guys" offers humor both broad and sly, but underneath the sometimes dark laughs is an undeniable soul that rings ever true.
The Hollywood Hills are an emblem of starry dreams sought and fulfilled, overlooking a multi-billion-dollar industry that has made Los Angeles the central hub of the west coast. For adult film star Misty Mountains (Murielle Tulio), her luck runs out late one night in 1977 when a puzzling car crash violently throws her from her vehicle and into the permanent memories of a young boy (Ty Simpkins) who watches the topless beauty breathe her last breath. Her final words: "How do you like my car, big boy?" The mystery surrounding Misty's deathnot to mention her mom's (Lois Smith) claim to have glimpsed her alive and wellultimately collides with the disappearance of the teenaged Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a yellow-dressed phantom prowling the city following the death of her boyfriend. Hot on her trail are unlikely adversaries-turned-partners, gruff enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and hard-drinking private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling). As their investigation takes them from ritzy Bel Air soirées to shadowy back alleys to curvy forbidding roads to a Los Angeles auto show, Jackson and Holland face a world of imminent danger on their way to the truth.
Proficient and bumbling, savvy and fearful, the self-made detectives of "The Nice Guys" are one of the more electric (and plausible) on-screen buddy pairings in some time. The case they take on is increasingly perilous and labyrinthine, a sleazy, moody, smog-tinted '70s throwback tour of the City of Angels. Shane Black is overjoyed to take his audience on this sleek noir journey, juggling a vintage milieu with irreverent humor and very real stakes. The layered narrative demands attention, and thank goodness for that; it's not often a summer release tells a smartly constructed story with actual complex characters.
Russell Crowe's blue-leathered loner Jackson Healy is the straight man to Ryan Gosling's loose cannon Holland March, but this is precisely the kind of ingratiating role the actor needed at this point in his career. Crowe has proven time and again to be a terrific performer, but there was the danger of falling into a rut with characters who are all relatively similar. He breaks up any threat of monotony with his delicious work here. As a widowed ne'er-do-well father with a penchant for screwing up, Gosling is a dynamic force in the showier, more unpredictable part. Crowe and Gosling's chemistry is one of the leading joys of the film, but it is newcomer Angourie Rice, as Holland's wise-beyond-her-years daughter Holly, who completes a winning trifecta. Rice owns her scenes as if she's been doing this for thirty years; it's an undeniable star-making performance. In supporting turns, Margaret Qualley (HBO's tremendous series "The Leftovers") gives the enigmatic Amelia a necessary allure and an unsuspecting goofiness; Matt Bomer (2015's "Magic Mike XXL
") is an offbeat choice to play vicious villain John Boy, but sells his homicidal lack of empathy; Kim Basinger (2010's "Charlie St. Cloud
"), as Amelia's powerful, morally shady mother Judith, shows a delicious promise left mostly unfulfilled in a finished cut that only allows her two scenes, and Yaya DaCosta (2013's "Lee Daniels' The Butler
") gets a few big laughs as Judith's shifty assistant Tally.
Sumptuously interweaving its sizable ensemble with an enthralling zigzag narrative, "The Nice Guys" is a comedic thriller with edge, brains and cool style to spare. If the payoff doesn't add up to as much as one might be expecting, there is a weird coherence to it all the same. It's the getting-there where the picture's copious pleasures reside anyway, led in no small part via Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling's game, transfixing appeal. Era-rich costumes and production design, fitted with pitch-perfect soundtrack cues (including America's "A Horse with No Name" and Earth, Wind & Fire's "September," the latter performed by a lookalike band at the Bel Air party), add notable flavor. A cautionary fable where making it in La La Land is a dangerousand sometimes dangerously funnysport, "The Nice Guys" is an energetically acerbic, sneakily touching joyride through a bygone vision of Hollywood.