Though Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling), the pair of gumshoes sort of ironically giving “The Nice Guys” its name, are inherently cynical in accordance with their archetypes, that cynicism expresses itself less as a hard-boiled world-weariness than a resigned bemusement. This sensation is ably captured in the dueling funny man performances of Crowe and Gosling who rely more on a delightful drollness than an all-out hilarity, which is an air this entire disco-era murder mystery mimics. Writer/Director Shane Black has always been more adept at penning a quip (“I was questioning the mermaids!”) then constructing a full narrative and in “The Nice Guys” the narrative becomes the foremost quip, a proverbial Shaggy Dog story in which the conclusion, not to be revealed, is the pessimistic punchline.
Healy is paid to rough people up. March is paid to find people. Healy gets paid to rough March up for trying to find a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). But, before long, Healy and March have loosely united to find Amelia together with March’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) in tow, the latter functioning as a less fleshed-out yet no less entertainingly precocious Veronica Mars-ish assistant. March is not a good father, flouting his alcoholism in plain view, but his little girl has turned into a capable young woman, and together these three yield a tri-headed investigator, winding their way through a case that connects missing Amelia with a dead adult film star named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio).
Not that they are top-tier sleuths. If we often like to think of our cinematic investigators as always being one step ahead, Healy and March are routinely a few steps behind, one of their most crucial discoveries happening only because the latter drunkenly falls off a balcony, rolls down a hill and right into the eureka moment. Rarely has a procedural relied so much on blind luck and random chance. This is partly related to Black possessing more interest in the choice by-play of his co-stars than the nuts and bolts of his fairly convoluted plot, but it also correlates to the inherent theme of unfaith in the surrounding world. The latter is best emblemized by the lengthy monologue Healy recites about a dying man depressingly comforted by President Richard Nixon. If Tricky Dick is the Angel of Death what hope does anyone really have?
There are glimmers here of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice”, another elaborate whodunit? concerned less with details than mood and tone and performances, though that film was set at the dawn of the 70s, bidding adieu to the 60s, while “The Nice Guys” arrives in 1977, with most of the hippie radicalism of the prior decade having fallen away. Not all of it, mind you, as Amelia crucially proves to a dissenter to The Man, though Black remains coolly apathetic toward that dissension. This is evinced by Amelia using her place within the adult film industry, believe it or not, to issue a celluloid missive against the political corruption that has engulfed her city, Battle of Algiers by way of Logjammin'. That’s a pretty funny joke. It’s also a pretty bleak worldview. Pornography is the last bastion of social hope.
A couple times March expresses fear for the world being left to Holly, though he is noticeably devoid of offering any kind of concrete corrective, never more acutely than the film’s denouement, in which a complete refutation of any hope is played entirely for laughs. Holly’s guilelessness proves a red herring; her father’s comic passivity proves the key. If “Inherent Vice” offered a kiss and a wave to the last vestiges of an era, “The Nice Guys” is more akin to crinkling up a passing era like a cheeseburger wrapper and tossing it out the window.