It begins its makeover in the past, setting the action in 1977 Los Angeles. The sun barely breaks through the smog, angry drivers line up at empty gas stations and what show-biz glamour there is has devolved into polyester-clad debauchery. Two world-weary men work this turf: Healy (Russell Crowe), a beefy, matter-of-fact enforcer, and March (Ryan Gosling), a boozy, shambolic private detective. Their paths intersect while pursuing the same missing woman, and they opt to combine their resources.
The hunt is just an excuse to pilot these two — plus March’s 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) — through the aforementioned grimy L.A. of porn shops, plastic diners, shag-carpeted homes and a bowling alley. There’s an intentionally convoluted plot that includes all of the above, plus gangsters, the Department of Justice, Detroit auto-makers, two fancy parties and killer bees.
It’s all to provide comic fodder for our pair, as they fall down hills and squabble. Crowe is mostly the straight man, while Gosling lets his comic feathers fly — from pratfalls and shrieking to wickedly delivered insults and some spot-on deadpanning. Rice is the voice of reason — the pint-sized adult in the funhouse — though she’s got a pretty sharp tongue herself.
Black, who co-wrote the script with Anthony Bagarozzi, made his bones penning Lethal Weapon, and he is a notable influence in the genre of mismatched buddy-cop movies that careen amiably between comedy and action. Nice Guys knows that you know the drill, and Black has some fun playing with audience expectations, though the tweaks and winks hardly outnumber the traditional beats. Not all the jokes land — and too many rely on easy profanity or things crashing — but the duds fly by quickly. (This is as good a place as any to make a plea for studios to stop releasing trailers, like the one for this film, that ultimately kill all the best jokes before you’ve even seen the movie.)
And as a special viewer bonus: If you suffered through the turgid humorless season two of HBO’s True Detective — a sprawling, kooky conspiracy set in downbeat L.A., with splashes of sex, violence and corruption, helmed by angry, boozy off-the-books detectives — consider this to be the much more entertaining, much less pretentious version that never was.