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Review: ‘The Nice Guys’ surprises with laughs (+trailer)

Ryan Gosling, left, and Russell Crowe star in the 1970s-set comedy-drama “The Nice Guys.”
Ryan Gosling, left, and Russell Crowe star in the 1970s-set comedy-drama “The Nice Guys.” Courtesy photo

It’s rare to see a movie that has the power to surprise, and surprise, and surprise. The surprises in “The Nice Guys” aren’t the surprises of story, though the story is varied enough to be unpredictable. The surprises rather have to do with unexpected lines or sight gags topped by other lines and sight gags. They have to do with radical, expertly executed shifts in tone.

For these reasons, “The Nice Guys” is a hard movie to describe. The performances are good, better than good, but this is not a movie about performances. Audiences will walk out of the film pleased, but not transformed. It’s not a great movie. An action comedy, it doesn’t have a great movie’s half-life, and it doesn’t produce that great movie glow. But its constant invention and originality are indeed great, and so is the pleasure they produce.

It’s a movie unlike any other, besides “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005) from the same writer-director, Shane Black. Along with co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi, Black creates in “The Nice Guys” an atmosphere that allows for farce, slapstick, silly wordplay and genuine and weirdly effective sentiment. And this is something you might not realize until it’s over – you won’t have time to realize it: There’s no dead time, no scenes that are merely functional, there to set up other scenes. Every scene is enjoyable, containing its own little kick or twist, and everything is always rushing forward.

Russell Crowe is Healy, a genial strong-arm guy for hire, who works for himself, eking out a living breaking arms and punching people in the face. Ryan Gosling is Holland, an inept private investigator. One is smart and silent, the other talkative and not too bright. Their paths cross violently – the buddy movie equivalent of meeting cute – but soon they realize that they share a common interest. They each need the other to solve a case that threatens them both.

As a filmmaker, Black is immersed in the Los Angeles film noir tradition, and he knows how to play off expectations. He knows the conventions he has to deliver on and the ones he can upend, and he seems to have a second-by-second understanding of an audience’s thinking. As with some of the famous noir films of the 1940s, most notably “The Big Sleep,” the plot of “The Nice Guys” isn’t important. The only thing important about it is that it seems important in the moment.

Set in 1978, it captures the 1970s milieu, not just with the cars and the clothes, but with a story that involves a series of murders within the fringes of the porn industry. As in most Los Angeles noir, the story’s range is big enough to incorporate low life and high life and to suggest that the two are closer than people think. But the experience of “The Nice Guys” is mostly that of shocked laughter. It’s a bombardment of audacity and outrageous humor that never lets up.

Gosling is the comic – mostly, but not always, the idiot – and Crowe is the straight man, and the two work well enough together that a sequel seems inevitable. (Black’s first screenplay was for “Lethal Weapon,” which became a franchise.) But Angourie Rice, who plays Gosling’s intelligent and highly moral 12-year-old, deserves a special mention. The character is an unexpected presence that adds dimension to the story, and Rice plays her beautifully.

‘The Nice Guys’

Rated: R for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe and Angourie Rice

Directed by: Shane Black

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