Without the performances of the three main characters, “The Nice Guys” would be just another mediocre 70sploitation mystery. All the bell bottoms and disco in the world could never deliver the kind of chemistry Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, and Angourie Rice got goin’ on.
Each of the actors plays a pure heart wading through the cesspool of 1970s Los Angeles. Crowe’s Healy is a world-weary tough who steps up just because someone ought to, even though he suspects the people he protects do not deserve it. Gosling’s March, equally world-weary, makes a living searching for missing people through L.A., but his driving force is to take care of his daughter, Holly. And Holly? She is a little girl who aspires to her father’s world-weariness but instead gives him something to live for.
Healy and March join forces in search of a missing woman named Amelia who desperately, emphatically does not want to be found. Holly, always up for an adventure, manages to tag along even in the most inappropriate circumstances.
Porn Exposes…The Truth
And they are wildly inappropriate because Amelia’s trail leads right through the seedy world of pornographic movies. The plot has something to do with a porno that will save the world and the environment (no, really!), one that the powers that be must suppress at all costs. The idea that exposing truth could change the world seems a little retro in this age of online combat, but perhaps the film is a little naive and pure-hearted in its own right.
Porno-to-expose-truth is a silly premise, but one the movie pulls off with flair and style. The 1970s shine in all their disco glory, but with porn portrayed as somewhat boring, somewhat distasteful, just another factor in a world gone entirely off-kilter, a world so weary even illicit sex isn’t all that interesting.
That’s not to say the movie is clean. Far from it. The nudity starts in the very first scene, and bare boobies keep popping up throughout, although no full nudity and no male nudity. Aside from a super-quick shot of the type of scene that these movies feature, lots of off-screen sexual noises, and plenty of discussion of porn, that’s it.
For all the seedy setting, no one in the movie is actually having sex. All the action is removed, hyper-idealized, fictional, an image on a screen. Sex is a backdrop. Sex is a business. Sex is a bore. The whole dynamic is kind of fascinating, actually.
Something Worth Protecting
Enter into this wan and faded scene two men and a little girl who clearly adore each other. March and Holly, for all their parent-child bickering, are the suns around which each other revolve. She worships him the way only a 13-year-old daughter can. He would go to the moon and back for her. It’s lovely.
You get the sense that Healy has finally found something worth protecting. There’s nothing sexualized about Holly, nothing too old or too broken. She acts like a precocious little girl, not a small adult. She’s the contrast to the world gone off the rails, a light in a world fading fast. No wonder both men adore her.
It’s not easy to pull off a connection like this in a raunchy ’70s comedy. Rice is luminous onscreen, a pretty little girl to be sure, but one with acting chops. She’s a match for Gosling and Crowe, a presence that gives the film its heart.
Action and Humor at a Good Pitch
The movie is funny, very funny, but it leaves easy laughs on the table. While Holly gets some laughs by being a little girl in some very seedy situations, there’s an innocence to her that a lesser movie would milk for cheap laughs.
The movie treats March’s repeated gumshoe errors the same way. He misinterprets clues. He falls off buildings. In a gun battle, he misses when tossing Healy a spare pistol. But the movie isn’t slapstick in the way a spoof would be, perhaps because March is more than just a character who makes errors. The humor brings you alongside him in a way that a spoof does not.
There’s plenty of action, too: gun battles and fights as March bumbles his way through the mystery and Healy takes care of business. The level of violence is ramped up to what you would expect in an R-rated film, along with the language. The action is a lot of fun, all done in glorious polyester and amazing ’70s cars.
It’s a taste of nostalgia, to be sure, but we’ve seen that before. The thing that sets this movie apart is the magic that happens between Gosling, Crowe, and Rice. If you’re world-weary yourself, and the type of person who doesn’t mind a porno setting, it’s worth seeing.