A lot of people liked Shane Black’s 2005 directorial debut, the self-referential neo-noir romp Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but Russell Crowe wasn’t one of them. “I think it’s too aware of itself,” he says. “It feels like there’s an in-joke going on in that movie, and I don’t connect to that. It’s not funny for me if the guy thinks he’s being funny.”
Luckily for Crowe, Black’s new comedy drops the meta shtick in favour of outright ineptitude. In The Nice Guys, Crowe and Ryan Gosling are a pair of schmucks bungling their way through a private eye case in 1977 Los Angeles. It’s not just that they don’t know they’re being funny, it’s that they don’t know what they’re doing at all. In one early scene, Gosling’s booze-soaked sleuth Holland March messes up a bar break-in so badly he ends up in an ambulance, while Jackson Healy, Crowe’s burly enforcer, is more interested in beating up small-time creeps than following any lead they might give up. The film works because Black’s dialogue is sharper than broken glass, but there’s plenty of the latter, too; he can barely look at a window without wanting to send a character flying through it. It’s an old-fashioned Raymond Chandler crime caper repainted with 70s sleaze.