At one point during The Nice Guys, Holland March (Ryan Gosling) says that he thinks he might be invincible. "It's the only thing that makes sense," he shouts.
March, a grieving widower with a teenage daughter, is certainly not invulnerable. By the time that scene comes around, the seedy private eye has already gashed open a wrist and almost bled out; had an arm broken by his future partner, a professional bruiser named Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe); fallen off of multiple buildings; and been shot at often and with great enthusiasm. The steady-to-sloppy buzz he maintains throughout the movie likely helps to dull the physical pain. March is a live-action cartoon of a man living and repeatedly nearly dying in 1977 Los Angeles. His finest moment, involving a tall building and a swimming pool, is right out of the Wile E. Coyote handbook, only with more splatter. Turns out goofy is a good look for Gosling.
It's not like the actor hasn't been funny before, even though his career's been heavy with roles of meme-worthy sad-eye seriousness. In Crazy, Stupid, Love and The Big Short, he played amusing variations on the same sort of preening dirtbag: one with a squishy center, and the other happily heartless (he also gives good Drunk History). But the comedy of his characters in those films stemmed from their swaggering douchiness, their ease with their own dominance in their gym-toned bods and pricey suits.
For March, on the other hand, it's been a long time since he was on top of his game. He wakes up in his bathtub and makes a living squeezing old ladies for extra fees for jobs that will never go anywhere. When he tries to flirt, it goes disastrously. He's never going to look like hell, because he looks like Ryan Gosling, but he does the best he can to come close. He's a pratfalling, polyester-clad disaster, and, playing off Crowe's violent-minded straight man, Gosling comes across as a man freed, double-taking and tumbling head over heels down a hill and floundering to hold a gun on someone while sitting on the can. There's nothing cool about him.
But there is plenty of cool in The Nice Guys, the third film helmed by Shane Black, who got his start writing wisecracking action classics like Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero before getting into directing himself. The movie is a featherweight take on the kind of conspiracy-oriented mysteries Los Angeles is so well suited for, from Chinatown to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Crowe's Healy resembles a funnier, extralegal version of the character he played in the 1997 neo-noir L.A. Confidential, and the actor even reunited with co-star Kim Basinger, who plays a Department of Justice big shot who hires March and Healy to find her errant daughter Amelia (Margaret Qualley).
Then there are porn producers and film projectionists, anti-smog demonstrators and Matt Bomer as an assassin with a haircut out of The Waltons. And there's Angourie Rice, a delight as March's precocious13-year-old girl-detective daughter Holly, who helps out her father and his new buddy. The two men bicker and flounder their way through the narrative, which includes an attempt to make the world a better place with — of all things — a movie. Like Quentin Tarantino incorporating cinema into his Inglourious Basterds plot, filmmaking is woven into the DNA of the story, which, like a lot of noirs (neo and otherwise), is more about the journey than how well the pieces fit together. The Nice Guys' take on this device is not as heavy as, say, a storyline to murder Hitler; in the same way, it's never as smart as the other films it gestures toward. Lines like "Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate" come out sounding cleverer than they actually are — but it crackles nevertheless, and in Gosling's pairing with the laconic Crowe, it finds a genuinely pleasurable pair of losers trying hard to eke out a win.