Less than a minute has passed, in “The Nice Guys,” and the first guitar riff has barely begun, when the wah-wah pedal is applied. That, of course, is official confirmation that the movie takes place in the nineteen-seventies. So is the typography of the opening credits: soft curves and candy stripes, as seen in “Boogie Nights” (1997). Like that great film, “The Nice Guys” starts in Los Angeles, in 1977, though the chronology tends to swerve. Our heroes, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling), pass a billboard for “Jaws 2,” which didn’t come out until the summer of 1978. And, at a rooftop party, a band plays “September,” by Earth, Wind & Fire, which was released even later. Still, we get the point: this is historical drama, dating from the groovacious period.
Healy and March are buddies, although they would hotly deny as much. At their initial meeting, one hits the other in the face, but no lasting grudge is borne, for the movie, directed by Shane Black, aims at being a comedy thriller: a delicate hybrid, founded on the belief that hitting people in the face is intrinsically funny. That happened a lot in “48 Hrs.” (1982), say, where Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy resolved their differences with a tempest of punches. After half an hour of “The Nice Guys,” however, you want to ask, Where are the differences between Healy and March? What needs resolving? Aren’t they both—not to cast judgment—balls of slime?
Well, Healy means muscle. If you object to someone, you hire Healy, and he pays the someone a visit and dissuades the daylights out of him. Crowe wraps the muscle in a layer of sad flab, and some of his lines have the sourness of late Chandler (“Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate”), but the film lets him rot only so far. March is a mite more respectable, being a private investigator with a license. On the other hand, he has the yellower belly, crying like a baby when hurt. He’s also a lush and a goofball, and Gosling gets to make a frequent fool of himself—falling off balconies, or struggling to control a loaded pistol and a lit cigarette while sitting on a toilet with his pants down. This is done with panache, yet Gosling, like Crowe, is less a natural comedian than a lonely brooder, and you can imagine an alternative version of “The Nice Guys” in which the same characters, in a similar plight, would hardly raise a smile.
Again, as in “Boogie Nights,” the adult-film industry provides the stained backdrop to the story. The demise of Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), whom March politely describes as a “porno young lady,” ignites a search for another woman, Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who was mixed up in the same trade, and who happens to be the daughter of a senior official in the Justice Department (Kim Basinger). March and Healy join forces to follow the trail, partly for money but also because, you never know, two losers might make a winner.
Wafting through “The Nice Guys” is the gust of a good idea. Plenty of films have dealt with California’s oil boom, and “Chinatown” took care of the water, but what about the stuff we breathe for free? What sort of corruption lies in store for our lungs? Healy and March come across an anti-pollution protest, with kids lying around in gas masks, and unwittingly turn into eco-dicks, uncovering fraud among carmakers. What seems clear, as the climax unfolds at an auto show, is not that the movie has lost the plot but, rather, that too many pieces of plot—the craving for clean air and for dirty pictures—have spoiled any hope of cohesion. Other superfluities include a dream sequence with a giant bug, which suggests that Black left the set for a day and handed over his duties to the ghost of William S. Burroughs.
So, with logic thrown to the smoggy winds, no standout villain, no romance, no twist of the calibre that Black provided in “Iron Man 3” (2013), and, glummest of all, no spark between Basinger and Crowe (who smoldered together in “L.A. Confidential”), why see this film? Partly because of the leading men, but mainly because of a girl. An Australian actress named Angourie Rice plays March’s daughter, Holly, who is thirteen. People try to remove her from the action, sending her home or stashing her in the trunk of a car, but she keeps coming back, and no wonder. Holly is the conscience of the movie, and the wisest soul in sight, yet she’s neither a prig nor a smart-ass. When her father asks, “Am I a bad person?,” she replies, without hesitation, “Yes.” Likewise, she says to his partner, who is about to kill someone, “Are you a good person?,” and thereby stays his hand. All this is done with a shrug or a semi-smile, and her airy self-possession makes the film a true homage to the seventies, for whom does Rice resemble if not Jodie Foster—the Foster whose annus mirabilis, 1976, gave us “Taxi Driver,” “Bugsy Malone,” “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane,” and Disney’s “Freaky Friday”? I like to think of Foster watching this movie and fondly recalling the time when she took on the world—the grownups, nasty as well as nice—and won the day.