Holland March (Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Crowe) are like Abbott and Costello private detectives. They argue, fight, and bumble their way through the plot of trying to locate a missing woman. They’re often puzzled about what is transpiring, yet manage to get through all the scrapes. Their characters are interesting, and Gosling shows more comedic chops and timing here than in his previous comedies. March seems hopelessly incompetent and clumsy with a weakness for alcohol, yet has a brain and is well read enough that his vocabulary often stumps his competitor/fellow principal investigator Healy. He also has a kind heart (placing a pillow under an unconscious foe), and is devoted to his daughter Holly (Rice) as best as he knows how.
Healy, on the other hand, is very serious, doesn’t drink (much) on the job, and serves as the brawn to March’s brain. He has a conscience and a kind heart too—at least for children—and is not quite as ready to stiff his clients as March is. Crowe is perfect in portraying a street-smart brute who can lure his prey by distraction then deliver crushing blows.
Neither March nor Healy is a very responsible adult for children, but quick-witted Holly inserts herself into their jobs and turns out to be a valuable, though unacknowledged, aide. She lends her own wry, astute comedic observations of the adults and manages to be at the right place at the right time, uncovering important clues, and coming up with ploys or a gun that she knows how to use. Although it is disconcerting to see, that along with the good values she has absorbed from her father, she has also learned techniques of sociopathic exploitation.
This is a mess of a movie in some ways, with tons of violence and over-the-top ridiculous plot twists. My impression is that this could have been a sensationally funny, dramatic hit with a message if the writer/director Shane Black and his co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi had chosen subtlety over unrestrained stunts and violence simply for effect. For instance, it’s hilarious when one flirtatious character swims after mermaids and does a back flip over a wall to impress a woman, but ends up tumbling down a hill. But this is not Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream, a farce with multiple plot lines ultimately making a statement about the mysteries of love.
If The Nice Guys has an underlying point, it may come at the end when the two protagonists are cynically reflecting on the corruption of justice and the manifold points of view that can come to bear on real situations. It’s too bad the filmmakers did not elaborate more on this, Healy’s wrestling with his conscience (especially when it is pricked by Holly) and March’s coming to terms with his guilt about his wife’s death, which would have made the story more substantive and meaningful.
The Nice Guys is a farce with unrealized potential.