An unlikely duo must team up to find a missing girl before a secret cabal has her murdered in The Nice Guys (2016), a comedic crime drama written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi and directed by Shane Black. Set in 1977 Los Angeles, The Nice Guys is a film noir for the disco era, but wasn’t originally written as a period piece. Thankfully, the writers decided to rework the concept and what resulted was one of the best films of 2016.
Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a muscle-for-hire who Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) pays to dissuade private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) from looking for her. March, an alcoholic who lives with his preteen daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), believes Amelia is somehow connected to the death of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Misty’s aunt, Mrs. Glenn (Lois Smith), hired March to investigate Misty’s death because she believed Misty might still be alive.
When two anonymous men (Beau Knapp and Keith David) show up at Jackson Healy’s apartment to press him for details on Amelia’s whereabouts, he decides to pay March to help him locate Amelia before they do. Together, they discover Amelia and Misty were connected to an underground adult film allegedly exposing a conspiracy on the part of auto manufacturers to suppress the catalytic converter. Several people involved in the movie turned up dead.
Things get really complicated when Amelia’s mother, Judith (Kim Basinger), a prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice, pays March and Healy to find her daughter. When Amelia literally falls into their laps, she accuses her mother of being part of the conspiracy. March and Healy slowly put the pieces together, but will they rescue her and the last remaining film reel in time to expose the truth?
Nice Guys was loosely inspired by true events, although it wasn’t advertised as such. Because of its particular geography, Los Angeles has long suffered from lingering smog, which was a pervasive problem in the mid-twentieth century. The film pokes fun at activists protesting “bird killing” pollution, but people really did wear gas masks to protest LA smog and it did have negative and long-term consequences for public health.
Auto emissions were a contributing factor to airborne toxins until 1975 when the Environmental Protection Agency mandated all new cars come equipped with a catalytic converter. GM, Ford, and Chrysler (the “Big Three“) agreed to research pollution-reducing technologies in 1953 but dragged their heels. The Justice Department filed an anti-trust case against the Big Three in 1968, alleging a conspiracy to suppress pollution-reducing technologies. So the events that formed a backdrop for the film occurred years before it takes place.
Nice Guys is more concerned with evoking the Zeitgeist of the decade rather than a strict adherence to facts. It was a brief time in American history when adult films were socially relevant. The 1970s are sometimes referred to as the “Golden Age of Porn,” when porn achieved some mainstream success with films like Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973). There were also widespread but unsubstantiated fears of Mafia influence in the adult film industry, which Judith uses as a red herring in this film.
Nice Guys features several strong performances. Ryan Gosling is a Canadian actor with a long career in film and television, most notably in The Notebook (2004) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). In 2016, he also starred in La La Land, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Holland March is a less serious role, demonstrating Gosling’s versatility as an actor. Audiences and critics loved it. For this performance, he was nominated for “Favorite Comedic Movie Actor” at the People’s Choice Awards and was awarded “Best Comedic Performance” by the San Diego Film Critics Society.
Angourie Rice, a young Australian actress, had her breakout role in The Nice Guys. Since then, she’s appeared in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), which was praised by audiences and critics, and The Beguiled (2017), which was not. Her character in The Nice Guys, Holly, is an adorably precocious child, insisting she can help her father solve the case (since her father is an incompetent drunk, who can blame her?). Like Natalie Portman in The Professional (1994), Angourie is perfect for the role, and hopefully will have a bright future in film.
Nice Guys is funny, clever, and expertly manages a purposely convoluted and over-the-top plot ala The Big Lebowski (1998) and Fargo (1996). Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling perfectly play off each other’s strengths, and bring a sense of ironic humor and style to an otherwise bleak and cynical world.