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“There are a lot of whores here and stuff,” a 12-year-old tells her private-eye father after they stumble into a porn kingpin’s pool party.
Dad (Ryan Gosling) is appalled by his daughter’s language.
“Don’t say ‘and stuff,’ ” he scolds.
Likewise, “The Nice Guys” dispenses some cheap, raunchy thrills. But it’s the “and stuff” that elevates the material.
The latest from freewheeling filmmaker Shane Black provides an adventure around 1977 Los Angeles, where the sleazy sex kittens of the “Boogie Nights” culture, the Justice Department and Big Business all permeate the city like its beige smog. Here’s a place where hit men are nicknamed after the prime-time TV stars they resemble, while future prime-time TV stars are still paying their dues at dodgy comedy clubs sandwiched between Tower Records and “Jaws 2” billboards.
As the soundtrack kicks off with the high-hat groove of the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” we meet two men on separate, equally shady career paths. Holland, the down-on-his-luck private eye and single dad, fleeces whatever he can from senile clients. Hardly a coincidence that Holland already sports a tattoo on his hand that reads, “You will never be happy.”
His new case involves locating a missing woman, appropriately named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Meanwhile, Amelia has hired freelance goon Jackson (Russell Crowe) to send a message to the guy who is tracking her. The thug complies by breaking Holland’s arm.
But when Jackson and Holland realize their intersecting cases are much thornier than they seem at first glance, they reluctantly partner to investigate L.A’s seedy underbelly. Their odd-couple decisions constantly force them to debate the difference between making the smart move and the right move.
The nefarious plot at the core of “The Nice Guys” doesn’t hold up to the most casual scrutiny. Fortunately, about everything else does in this entertaining crime comedy, from the look to the tone to the throwaway details. (The interrogation of “dead” protesters at an anti-smog sit-in is hilarious in its utter absurdity.)
Another key to the stylish film’s success rests with its veteran leads. Crowe has made progressively iffy choices since his “Gladiator” heyday: “The Man With the Iron Fists”? “Winter’s Tale”? “Noah?” Yet the burly Australian exudes both confidence and good humor as a low-rent neighborhood enforcer.
“I don’t have a job title. I’m not in the Yellow Pages,” he narrates.
Gosling follows his amusingly smarmy turn in “The Big Short” with a far different character. His Holland comes across as such a panicky, polyester-garbed weasel that it’s a credit to the Oscar-nominated actor that he makes the man so likable. Even so, Gosling takes chances that don’t always pay off, including a scene of hyperventilating upon discovering a corpse where you’d swear he’s auditioning for an Abbott & Costello sketch.
Writer-director Black has proven himself comfortable in both quirky passion projects (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) and blockbuster franchises (“Iron Man 3”). Somehow “The Nice Guys” — which Black co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi — manages to be both.
The film features moments of quiet, idiosyncratic character drama, which often hinge on the compelling relationship between Holland and and his daughter (Angourie Rice). It also delivers bloody, over-the-top action sequences that traipse into Michael Bay territory.
“The Nice Guys” can be rightfully labeled ridiculous, but this “stuff” never gets boring. Even when the movie doesn’t make the smart move, it makes the right move.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
‘The Nice Guys’
Rated R. Time: 1:56.