More like the Not-So-Nice Guys, am I right, fellas?
Let’s discuss why this film works despite its plot being a muddled mess. Yes, that means this will be a conversation about character versus plot and what side you ultimately come down on being the leading factor in your enjoyment of this film.
A drama teacher once posed this question to the classroom, and it is one I contemplate often: “Would you rather have great characters with no plot, or a great plot with no characters?”
Ultimately, I believe I land on the “great characters/no plot” end of the spectrum (for a spectrum is what it truly is). My argument is that fully formed characters with purposeful arcs communicate much more deeply to the soul of the viewer than a slew of plot details. And it is in this spirit which The Nice Guys operates.
The Nice Guys follows Jackson Healy, a hired brawler, and Holland March, a private investigator, as they search for the missing Amelia. Tagging along is March’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Holly. It is the relationship between all these characters which gives the film its spark, more so than the convoluted noir story which brings them together.
I say “convoluted” because the plot is nearly impossible to follow. There is a dead pornstar, a missing girl who is connected to her by some film which details the corruption at the heart of the automotive industry, which is headed by the Chief of Justice who is also the missing girl’s daughter, but is also trying to have her assassinated and you see where I’m going with this?
It’s not that the plot is “bad” it’s that it’s not important. It’s merely an excuse to have these characters bounce off one another. And boy, do they bounce. Ryan Gosling is absolutely exceptional in the role of Holland March. He brings a manic energy and sincerity to the character that we have seen little of in his past work. Russell Crowe, meanwhile, plays the straight man to utter perfection, portraying Healy as a tough but vulnerable brute. The film ends with the possibility of future installments, and I for one am hopeful that we’ll get more of the effervescent chemistry between Crowe and Gosling (the fact that their last names form an avian pair amuses me to no end).
There’s an interesting aspect to the violence in The Nice Guys which is summed up perfectly in one of the film’s final lines:
“Look on the bright side. Nobody got hurt.”
“People got hurt.”
“I’m saying, I think they died quickly. So I don’t think they got hurt.”
The film places a hilarious emphasis on the collateral damage left by these two in their quest for the elusive Amelia. We are treated to frequent shots of innocent bystanders being either shot or blown away as March and Healy stumble through each encounter. This may all be for the purpose of setting up that hilarious exchange at the end of the film, but I also believe that it is Shane Black’s attempt at grounding the comedy in a reality that is so often left unconsidered in film. Hell, I just watched Batman V Superman and its half-assed attempts at minimizing collateral damage, and so can appreciate that The Nice Guys neither attempts nor applauds the ludicrous amount of dead civilians left in the plot’s wake.
Shane Black may be back in his comfort zone with The Nice Guys but it is a comfort zone in which he excels marvelously. The buddy cop film is a classic comedy genre, and another entry from its premier scribe will always be a welcome balm to Hollywood conventions.