'The Nice Guys' review: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe buddy up for action comedy

At one point in "The Nice Guys," the disheveled, half-drunk private eye played by Ryan Gosling falls off a Hollywood Hills balcony, rolls down the hill and comes to rest inches away from one of the film's many corpses. Gosling's reaction? Bust out the best Lou Costello (of Abbott and Costello, for you ahistorical comedy rookies) available under the circumstances, complete with non-verbal gasping, tears and a comic inability to form actual words.

It's pretty fair nostalgia, this bit, though in fact Gosling does considerably funnier things in writer-director Shane Black's determined attempt to "Lethal Weapon"-ize the duo of Gosling and top-billed Russell Crowe.

The entire movie trades in an increasingly violent brand of nostalgia. It's set in 1977, in smoggy, porny, skeezy LA scored to Earth, Wind and Fire and Al Green. Private eye Holland March (Gosling, alternately panicky and supercool) teams up with thug-for-hire Jackson Healy (Crowe, who put on lots of poundage for the role, and rolls through the movie with agreeably rumpled panache). Mission: to find a girl whose disappearance relates to the opening-scene death of a porn star named Misty Mountains. It's supposed to be a joke, I guess, but the soon-to-be-corpse's prettily bloodied bare breasts receive more close-ups than the actress, Murielle Telio, has lines.

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"The Nice Guys" depends on the relationship between March and his 13-year-old daughter (Angourie Rice, deftly humanizing a blandly conceived role) for audience sympathy. This is strictly an insurance policy against the bulk of Black's casually brutal, occasionally funny screenplay. The missing girl, that classic noir detective trope, has a powerful mother, a Department of Justice honcho played by Kim Basinger. She and Crowe prowled a different set of mean LA streets in "L.A. Confidential." In "The Nice Guys" the Basinger character is investigating collusion among Detroit's automakers to kill the catalytic converter emissions control device. Everything ties together, though Black's plotting and pacing gets gummed up in the later stretches, relying on stone-cold assassins and one too many shoot-outs.

Is it fun? Parts, yes, and many will get exactly what they wanted from "The Nice Guys": violence, wisecracks, a couple of choice sight gags (Gosling's attempt to break the glass on a locked door ends badly), plus the usual angry-mismatched-buddy-cops-but-not-really-cops routine. It has taken many years and many films for Gosling to develop as an actor. Here he gives his most amiable movie-star performance to date. The door's left wide open for a sequel and, per Black's "Lethal Weapon" script once upon a Reagan-era time, ripe for franchising. Who knows? The response to "The Nice Guys" at its recent Cannes Film Festival premiere was encouraging to a fault; its mixture of sadism and jocularity probably operates best with a crowd of film journalists already suffering from sleep deprivation. Black's a talented genre writer, but nothing that happens in "The Nice Guys" hasn't happened in a hundred other LA stories.

As Art Carney said in the 1977 neo-noir "The Late Show": "This town doesn't change — they just push the names around."

Michael Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.

mjphillips@tribpub.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

"The Nice Guys" — 2.5 stars

MPAA rating: R (for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use)

Running time: 1:56

Opens: Thursday evening

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