Not-so-nice guys have sexist cake and eat it too

 

 

The Nice Guys (MA). Director: Shane Black. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger, Yaya DaCosta, Margaret Qualley, Murielle Telio, Matt Bomer. 116 minutes

Shane Black didn't invent the buddy cop genre, but his script for 1987's Lethal Weapon did establish a durable template: hard-bitten tough guys who shroud vulnerability in hyper-machismo; unlikely partners who find friendship through shared endeavour; wisecracks keeping pace with the crack of gunfire and of fists against flesh. His debut as director for 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang saw Black both embrace and subvert the template, and he does so again in The Nice Guys.

The film is set in 1977 Los Angeles, where private investigator Holland March (Gosling) and local thug-for-hire Jackson Healy (Crowe) team up to find a missing girl, Amelia Kutner (Qualley). Amelia may hold the key to the recent mysterious death of a porn star named Misty Mountains (Telio). Beyond that however, following the anti-smog protester Amelia's trail leads Holland and Jackson into the midst of a conspiracy involving Detroit's Big Three car manufacturers.

The Nice Guys is entertaining; a distinctively LA, neo-noir pastiche, steeped in sleaze and prime-colour neon, which gains currency from its environmental theme, and is cut through with bombastic action and surreal flourishes: there's an underbelly figure who's listed in the credits only as 'Blue Face' (for reasons that are obvious if you've seen the film); also, a hitman named John Boy (Bomer) who bears a striking resemblance to the actor who played the character of that name on 1970s TV show The Waltons.

Ryan Gosling and Angourie Rice in The Nice GuysGosling and Crowe meanwhile deliver, somewhat unexpectedly, a straight-faced, two-pronged comedic tour de force, with Gosling's physical comedy in particular being a standout. At the same time Holland and Jackson are men with complicated pasts and questionable morals who wear their world-weariness in every facial expression and gesture, even as the characters and plot verge on (and at times trip extravagantly into) the absurd. These are serious actors taking their funny roles seriously.

 

"Black, a mainstream filmmaker who is more self-aware than most, tries to have his cake and eat it too, by both drawing and subverting the male gaze."

 

Notwithstanding individual tastes that are by no means aligned with gender, this is the kind of movie that can tend to appeal to puerile male interests while diminishing respect for women. In this regard Black, a mainstream filmmaker who is more self-aware than most, tries to have his cake and eat it too, by both drawing and subverting the objectifying male gaze. A case in point: a boy ogles a nude centrefold, then stumbles across the model herself, dying while sprawled in the same erotic pose.

It's a dubious tactic, that doesn't do much to diminish the reliance on sexist tropes (Damsels in Distress, Women as Background Decoration) and jokes ('Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate' — Jackson) elsewhere in the film. Still, credit where it is due: there are a surprisingly large number of strong female characters here, too (or perhaps not that surprisingly — after all, a Black screenplay gave us one of the great female action roles, filled by Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)).

This includes the possibly corrupt chief justice Judith Kutner (Basinger) and her assistant Tally (DaCosta); not to mention Amelia herself, who is played on-screen as bratty and diva-ish (and mostly for humour), but whose role in the plot is, on reflection, not short of heroic. Most notably there is Holland's young daughter Holly (played with scene-stealing verve by Australian actor Rice), who, more than just a comic foil both to her alcoholic father and to his surly, burly partner, is the film's moral core.

As is the time-honoured tradition of Hollywood PIs, Holland has long bound the wounds of some unresolved grief in alcohol and cynicism. He is sufficiently self-aware to ask his daughter — after taking financial advantage of a desperate elderly woman, no less — if he's a bad person. And Holly answers unequivocally: of course he is. She openly challenges her father, and Jackson too for that matter, to be better people. Under the moral certitude of her young gaze, they do try. At times they even succeed.

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Nice Guys, Shane Black, Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger


 

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