In 1987, when Shane Black made his splashy screenwriting debut with Lethal Weapon, an R-rated buddy-action comedy like The Nice Guys, it was one of the top ten box office hits of the year, as was Stakeout, another film from the buddy-action mold. While it’s certainly no shock that audience tastes have shifted in the ensuing three decades, the nature of the shift is telling. The media landscape has grown so much more crowded: with the rise of an overwhelming array of entertainment and distractions via the internet, and particularly via internet-enabled streaming services, even those who were once ravenous for pop culture may now feel glutted.
In 2016, following various pop culture conversations online quickly becomes exhausting; critics and bloggers burn through topics at an absurd pace—so much so that the conversation about something like the Ghostbusters remake felt tiresome before the film had even opened. At the same time, a film like The Nice Guys can get lost in the shuffle: it is neither the type of brand-name behemoth that generates widespread excitement and outrage with every teaser trailer, nor the type of film that is able to gradually build a buzz in the manner of a modest indie hit like The Lobster. The viral marketing video with Silver, Gosling, and Crowe may acknowledge this issue—even as it attempts to harness whatever it is that makes people hit “share” on social media—but it wasn’t enough to help The Nice Guys make an impression at the box office, and that’s too bad.
Though it maybe hasn’t found enough of its audience yet, I hope The Nice Guys eventually builds its own cult of fans, and I think it has a shot at doing so. After all, though Lethal Weapon is one of its most obvious spiritual siblings, so is the Coen Brothers’ classic The Big Lebowski, a weirdo comic twist on Los Angeles film noir that took ages to earn its reputation. The Nice Guys follows a bankable (in 1987) buddy-action formula, but it also takes endearing turns for the weird: there are dreams of talking bees, party guests dressed as mermaids and trees, and discussions of near-death visions of Richard Nixon. The phrase “action-comedy” might have unwelcome connotations for some readers—we’ve all seen plenty of cringe-worthy examples of both genres, and mention of combining them conjures images of actors spitting goofy one-liners while dodging fireballs—but Black and his cast give action-comedy a good name here. Rather than punctuating the action with one-liners, Black finds humor and absurdity in his characters and situations: a goon gives medical advice before breaking his victim’s bone, a character defensively throws a pot of coffee without realizing that it’s cold, and an action sequence that finds a character falling through two windows, only to be doored by one car and hit by another, unfolds with the antic energy of a Chuck Jones cartoon. Black’s humor doesn’t devolve into smug parody because he genuinely loves his genre, and here he offers his audience reason to share in his affection.
Yet while Black can reliably find humor in a cinematic shoot-out, the film’s story has some sharp edges. Set in 1977, The Nice Guys looks at its era with something less than nostalgia. The plot that brings Gosling’s morally compromised P.I. Holland March and Crowe’s hired thug Jackson Healy together involves the former’s search for Amelia, a teenage girl whose environmental activism gets tangled up in the flourishing ‘70’s porn industry. Amelia had a hand in producing the film’s MacGuffin, which is a print of How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?, an adult film that details the auto industry’s collusion against stricter emissions standards. The juxtaposition of Amelia’s youthful idealism and the sleazy exploitation of the skin trade is played for occasional laughs—such as when Amelia fervently insists that the nudity and sex in her political film are “just the commercial element”—but there’s a ruefulness here too, a reminder, perhaps, that the sexual and political awakenings of the sixties didn’t yield as much positive change as many hoped they would.
There’s a weariness running through Black’s characters as well. He has long been drawn to protagonists that are haunted or hurting: from Lethal Weapon’s suicidal Martin Riggs to the shell-shocked Tony Stark of Black’s superhero debut, Iron Man 3, the writer-director’s characters frequently come laden with emotional baggage. Unhappiness is not inherently interesting, but characters that struggle can often feel more realistic than those that don’t, and The Nice Guys gains a more complex texture because it follows people who are conflicted, sad, and flawed. March lives in a rented place down the road from the empty lot where the house he shared with his late wife once stood; he is literally and figuratively unable to rebuild. His daughter Holly visits the lot regularly, remembering her home and her mother—both lost in a fire. Meanwhile, Healy longs to feel “useful” but feels most useful when he’s at his most violent; pay attention to Healy’s brutality in the flashback to his “heroic” confrontation with an unhinged gunman in a diner, and you might remain a bit afraid of him for the remainder of the film. “Am I bad person?” March asks his daughter, and later in the film Holly asks Healy if he’s a bad person. The truth is that March and Healy aren’t nice guys—at least not all the time—but Black has a gift for giving life to likable but damaged characters: not-quite-nice guys (and gals) who are looking for a chance to be better.
Of course, Black’s affection for L.A. Confidential (and its forties and fifties film noir antecedents) is obvious here (this is made especially explicit by the presence of Confidential stars Crowe and Kim Basinger), and troubled characters have always populated film noir. The Nice Guys’ mean streak—springing from its noir roots—seems worth emphasizing as we reach the end of what was, for many, a bruising year. While I hope it’s clear that I find the film quite funny, it’s also a story where the main characters unravel the mystery, but people still get hurt. People still get killed. And systemic corruption gets most of the bad guys off the hook. By the end, Healy may have found a way to feel useful, but he’s also drinking again. Despite March’s climactic bit of narration: “And sometimes—sometimes—you just win,” this isn’t really a story about winning. It’s a story about trying, and digging for truth, and not letting uncertainty and despair prevent you from trying some more. Reflecting on it now, perhaps pitting a story like that against a long string of superhero and fantasy movies, perky animated fare, and broad comedies isn’t a recipe for box office success. The big movies that dominate each summer are pitched at massive audiences, and it’s hard to sell those audiences on world-weary noir, even if it’s cut with levity. Still, as 2016 comes to a close, there’s a resonance to a film where persisting in a corrupt and dispiriting world is a victory in itself.