Warning: The following content is a virtual ticking time bomb of literary devices. It is especially loaded with ellipses and asides. (Just so you know…)
When I was a kid my brother and I would visit our dad in El Paso for about six weeks every summer. I usually looked forward to this because my dad was very permissive (we got to do all kinds of stuff like hike the Franklin Mountains without parental supervision and sunscreen) and my mom wasn’t, i.e., we had a babysitter until I was twelve and I had to take naps until I was eleven.
We stayed in a lot of hotels with my dad, and he was gone most of the day so we’d have run of the place. It was fun. We’d go swimming and check out the spa and eat in the restaurant and roam the grounds and we watched a lot of TV too, just like at home, only we had cable so I watched a lot of movies I wouldn’t have otherwise. One of those movies was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Now that movie made a big impression on me because it was all slapstick and farcical and silly and then all of the sudden, I mean out of nowhere, there would be a horror sequence with Dracula or Frankenstein or this evil, seductive female surgeon that wants to transplant Costello’s brain into the skull of Frankenstein. See what I mean? Fiendish.
So fast forward about forty years…I’m watching The Nice Guys and I realize that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the template for this movie! And Wow! I’m lovin’ it! (Exclamation points because I really don’t care too much for Abbott and Costello; too vaudevillian.) It’s the best comedy I’ve seen in a long, long time! (Plus it’s got Ryan Gosling in it and I like him. He’s a very nice looking young man. And he’s a really good actor.)
Anyway, back to The nice Guys…
Here’s what I mean about the Abbott and Costello comparison: The movie starts off with a gorgeous sweeping night time panorama of Los Angeles and then the camera swoops down onto a very ordinary, middle class house and focuses on this cute little white mutt in the backyard that wants to be let in. The dog is kind of forlorn and antsy, like they get before a really bad storm’s about to hit. A kid in button up pajamas–he’s about twelve–opens the back door and obliges the mutt.
We follow the kid down the hallway of the house where he slips into his parents bedroom–they’re asleep–and crawls halfway under the bed where he snatches one of his dad’s porno magazines. (It’s the 70s. Porno was in magazines back then and only men/boys looked at it. Ahhh…the good ole’ days.)
Then–quiet as a mouse, mind you–the kid sneaks out the bedroom, shuts the door and skips back down the hall to the kitchen. He pours a glass of milk and leans against the counter next to a big picture window. As he’s leafing through the magazine ogling the centerfold, we catch a glimpse through the window of a car that runs off the road. It careens down a hill heading straight for the house. Horrifically, it crashes into it–plows right through it even–and plummets down a ravine, averting the kid and his dog by a mouse whisker.
And the driver? She’s the porn magazine centerfold. Yes, the very one the boy was ogling only forty-seven seconds before. She’s dead as a dormouse now. ( I know. I know. It’s dead as a doornail but I’m going with this mouse thing as an extended metaphor, so…)
The whole movie is like that. It’s a lighthearted, slapstick, physical comedy of errors and hijinks and then–Bang! Boom! Pow!–out of nowhere, sudden, bloody violence hijacks it D.B. Cooper style and we are charmed.
Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, a goofy, disenchanted private investigator whose wife was killed in an accident that was his fault. He has a freakishly bad sense of smell and, hence, was unable to detect gas fumes which resulted in their house blowing up. He also lacks follow through so he didn’t investigate when she complained about the smell.
Holland has a wise beyond her years but still idealistic thirteen-year-old daughter, Holly, (a terrific Angourie Rice) who saves him from being a complete failure and utter alcoholic. She is a classic case of the child parenting the parent, an unfortunate phenomenon not exclusive to the 1970’s but one that flourished in them none-the-less.
Then there’s Jackson Healy (Russel Crowe) who’s also a private investigator…Umm…Well, not really… He’s more like a leg-breaker for hire, but he’s no monosyllabic Neanderthal. In fact Healy’s actually quite smart–but he’s going to seed and he knows it. When he happens onto Holland’s operation he’s intrigued with the possibility, but his own brand of integrity and a fondness for Holly keeps his ambition in check. (He does break Holland’s arm though.) The three of them team up to investigate a convoluted conspiracy involving–get this—porn stars, the Department of Justice, the EPA and catalytic converters. (Oh well, three out of four ain’t bad.)
These tropes prove fertile ground for writer/director Shane Black who penned the scripts for Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodbye. He obviously likes his action/buddy films.
But similarities aside, The Nice Guys has a very different vibe than those movies. It is much more like the appallingly underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) which he also wrote and directed.
Like the traditional buddy team cliches that Black is a prominent architect of, Holland and Healy are mismatched arch-types with their own version of rouge charm. What differentiates them and the director/writer Black from the screenwriter Black is his characters refreshing, invigorating sense of humility, humanity and vulnerability…That and a rather strong, unexpected dose of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.