The Nice Guys ✮✮✮

The Lost Boy Scouts

by Glenn Lovell

Shane Black’s wonderfully loopy buddy comedy “The Nice Guys” doesn’t pussyfoot around. In fact the answer to its central mystery can be found in the opening shot as the camera pans across a blurred L.A. skyline cloaked in smog.

For fans of the oddball auteur this will come as no surprise. Black, who scripted the original “Lethal Weapon” and wrote and directed the retro-noir “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” starring Robert Downey Jr., has never been big on traditional three-act structure or logical plot progression. Black’s thing: shaggy-dog humor, stapstick-y action, offhand bursts of graphic violence. Like the Robert Altman of “The Long Goodbye” and the Richard Rush of “Freebie and the Bean,” he’s more about deconstructing genre conventions than honoring same.

In the early ’90s, a bidding war broke out over Black’s script for “The Last Boy Scout,” which opened on a football fieldTNG_Day_#38_12182014-60.dng with a running back making it to the end zone — by gunning down three opposing players. Needless to say the NFL didn’t give the film its blessing.

The generically titled “Nice Guys” has no single moment that’s as memorably shocking, but it still works, thanks to the inspired casting of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as, respectively, a likably inept private eye and an oddly conscientious leg-breaker.

The thumping soul music conjures memories of Isaac Hayes and “Shaft.” Which is only right. We’re in 1977 Los Angeles, a time of smog alerts, half-hearted sit-ins, Nixon-in-exile, a porn industry that’s about to discover VHS. This urban milieu, like post-Vietnam America, feels blighted, played out.

Gosling plays Holland March, a detective-single father who does his snooping with his 13-year-old daughter (Angourie Rice) in tow; Crowe at his fleshiest is Jackson Healy, a gloomy enforcer. March is as mad as Healy is heavy-handed when it comes to kicking in doors and collecting debts. After a painful first meeting, they team up for an on-again, off-again investigation.

If the pair at times appear to be channeling Abbott and Costello, that’s intentional. Gosling, eyeball to eyeball with a corpse, opens his mouth to scream but can only manage a dry wheeze. You can fill in the “Abbott! … Hey, Aaah-bott!

The boys are sort of retained by a local politico (Kim Basinger) to search for her missing daughter, Amelia, an activist who’s somehow involved in the smut trade. Also looking for Amelia and a purloined porno are a number of colorfully unsavory characters, including a laughing-boy thug (Beau Knapp) and a GQ-handsome hitman (Matt Bomer) who goes by the name John Boy (one of numerous references to “The Waltons”).

Depending on your patience for such things, the plot will seem either unbelievably messy or deliciously serpentine. It’s full of in-jokes and some of the wackiest dream sequences since “The Big Lebowski.” But it’s the inspired pairing of Gosling and Crowe as the ditsy-to-dour bedroom dicks that makes this film so much goofy fun. Indeed, along with indies “The Witch” and “Midnight Special,” it’s the best time I’ve had in the dark so far this year.

THE NICE GUYS ✮✮✮ With Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger, Matt Bomer. Written, directed by Shane Black. 116 min. Rated R (for broadly played violence, profanity, nudity)

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