One of the things I'm tasked with teaching my middle school kids each year is the use in literature of dramatic irony and how it creates such effects as suspense and humor.
Shane Black's new film, The Nice Guys, creates both of those effects so perfectly and with such fun, it's hard to even express it in words. It just BEGS to be seen. It is an example of the type of fun so lacking in today's action movies. Sometimes you just need to tumble somebody down a hill and show the audience something before the character sees it for himself. Sometimes you simply need to let good actors find a chemistry and let them do what they do best.
Russell Crowe, where have you been? He is GREAT here as Jackson Healy, a tough guy for hire in Los Angeles circa 1977. Overweight, strong, bearded, this is the Russell Crowe we've been missing, one we haven't seen since he played the similar, though more brooding Bud White in Curtis Hanson's neo-noir masterpiece, L.A. Confidential. He enters the story the day after a porn star named Misty Mountains crashes through a house in the Hollywood hills, a fun and funny sequence of events right off the bat, as the young man who found her dead was just oggling her centerfold. A mysterious girl, Amelia (Margaret Qualley), pays Healy to shut down a bumbling P.I. called Holland March (Ryan Gosling), as he is looking for her and she doesn't want to be found. At the same time, Holland is taking multiple payments from Misty Mountains' grandmother (the great Lois Smith) and doing little in the way of finding her, much less believing the grandmother's tale that her granddaughter is actually still alive.
Holland is a hard drinker and may actually be the "world's worst detective," as his pre-teen daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) dubs him. He takes his beating from Healy and moves on until their paths obviously cross again, when Healy needs to hire him to help track down Amelia, the same girl who had just paid him to beat Holland up.
You can sense where this is going. In the vein of the great noir detective stories and their re-imaginings a la The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice, here is a film that chases leads, tracks them down, and then plays right into the hands of our two heroes, with the finest dramatically ironic slapstick wins maybe of all-time. And it is, like those great films that precede it, one thing after another and so on for its two-hour runtime.
There is a lot of plot here and with it come many characters. It was nice to see the great Keith David pop up as a henchman for a porn kingpin. Matt Bomer with a mole plays an assassin named John Boy, playing into a Waltons motif that works on many levels, one of which being the stark irony that the biggest TV show in the bright neons of 1977 was one about a depression era family of rural Virginia. Then, there's Amelya's mother (Kim Basinger), head of the Justice Department, working to thicken the subplots involving a take down of the auto industry and the rise of the porn industry and vice versa. (There is some message in the midst of all the slapstick, car wrecks, and shootouts. Another thing this film gets so right.)
The real work, though, is done by the three leads. Ryan Gosling has staked his claim as a comedic genius here. And I'm talking physical comedy, the kind nobody does anymore. Consider the funniest sequence from the trailer in which Crowe's Healy finds him in a bathroom stall, pants down, smoking a cigarette, reading a magazine. Gosling has more chemistry with that stall door than most actors ever find with anyone. And that's just one thing. The real chemistry is between he and Russell Crowe himself. They are, together, the perfect bumbling drunk and hard tough guy pairing. Together, they occupy nearly every scene, and they never miss once, expect when they do, and this is played often and on purpose and for pure comedy.
Then, to add another level of comedic chemistry, there is the young actress, Angourie Rice as Holly March. She misses her mother and her home, both seemingly lost to a fire, which seems to have played into Holland's drinking and ineptitude. She is dad's caretaker not the precocious little annoyance a lesser comedy would have her be. More of an adult than just about any of the adults in the film, it can be a credit to screenwriter/director Black for going all the way with this one. The Holly character is as interesting and fresh as she is cute and fun.
The thing about dramatic irony in terms of comedic effectiveness is that is has to be done quickly. This is the essence of what we call comedic timing, and there is not a single gag in this film that doesn't work, that isn't perfectly timed. Shane Black has directed a one-of-a-kind buddy action comedy here (though I must admit that I've never seen his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I'm told is quite great and similar). He has the set-up, the expectation, the execution, the unexpected, and the satisfaction in every single set piece. I never stopped laughing and never even had the time to be bored. That's what I call timing. There won't be a better comedy this year.