Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Nice Guys

How Awful About Amelia
"Kids these Days..." ("Don't Say 'and stuff.' Just say, Dad, there are whores here.")

Shane Black excels at "buddy" movies—he did, after all, create the Lethal Weapon series. That's a good thing and a bad thing: when he does something like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he comes up with a mystery, pushed off-kilter by the clashing personalities of his protagonists; when he does something like Iron Man 3 with a clearly dominant personality, the movie lurches out of control from its lack of counter-point. The Nice Guys has no such issues and actually improves on his formula.

I have to confess: any PI movie set in the 70's that starts out with the funk-shimmer of "Papa was a Rolling Stone" is already on my good side. When it establishes locale and detail by doing a rear-view fly-over of a decaying "Hollywood" sign to settle over a ranch-house in the valley at the base of that sign it shows someone is being careful with the atmosphere. Black follows the night-time perambulations of a child-denizen wandering the house who manages to score by finding a copy of dad's "Cavalier" magazine and then becomes distracted by a centerfold that he doesn't see a sports-car sailing off a cliff overhanging his backyard and bouncing through his house, you're seeing someone saying something about a world out of whack in the most surprising and arresting way possible.

And it keeps getting better.

Like most "buddy" movies, the two don't start as "buddies." Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a lone wolf and is the muscle-arm of the detective business. People hire him to be tough and threaten. He's been at this long enough to have eliminated the tough stuff; the rules are simple: people are persuaded easier when they're hurting and it gives them to know that he is serious. Business rarely needs to be repeated. It is a bad side of the business, but he has a good side; he is recognized (when he is recognized, which is rarely) as "the diner guy" who disarmed a gun-man and beat him into unconsciousness with his own weapon. It made the news and it was good for business, if beating up people is your businessHe does his work efficiently and with humor, even providing helpful medical advice to help with the future hospitalization. He's good at his job, but a bit of a troglodyte.
Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a widower with an 11 year old daughter in tow. He's the brains end of PI work, but that is being generalized and charitable. He specializes in the bizarre cases that most detectives would dismiss as a waste of time. Holland doesn't think it's a waste as long as money is being wasted his way. He has sharp instincts, but absolutely no physical skills and his mental facilities are being impaired by his habit of drinking himself into a stupor. The death of his wife has thrown him into an incapacitating depression, and it is only his caretaker-daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), 11 going on 35, that keeps him on his flat-feet and peeping.
Holland has been making the rounds, searching for Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a girl who has disappeared in the L.A. of 1977. It is not a good place, rife with crime, prostitution, porn and drugs—in other words, not unlike the Los Angeles of today, but with more water. Amelia is a typical missing-persons case, she's a headstrong runaway, privileged, entitled, mad at her mother (Kim Basinger) and determined to get back at her, how is anybody's guess. Holland does some interviewing at local clubs and bars, but Amelia is untraceable.
She should have asked Healy. Amelia has just hired him to beat Holland up and warn him off the case, breaking an arm that March has already bandaged from a breaking-and-entering gone wrong. He also gives a nice little back injury that, considering all the running around that goes on towards the end of the picture, seems to heal itself magically—either that, or he has wonderful muscle relaxants.
It is only when Healy is attacked in his office (above The Comedy Store, which is different) by a couple of toughs (Keith David, Beau Knapp) who are also looking for Amelia, that he begins to think that there may be more to this than just a simple thump-for-hire. Maybe March is working for the same guys who are threatening him or maybe not, but whatever the reason, Amelia seems to be a popular girl and Healy wants to find her so he can find out why he is also being threatened. Time to combine resources.
Back-track to March, who, understandably, is pained to have anything to do with Healy, but their mutual self-interest not to be shot persuades them to pool their resources Amelia-tracking and maybe find out who the people are who are targeting both of them. The two look for leads at a protest rally against L.A.'s smog conditions organized by Amelia and meet an acquaintance of hers named Chet (Jack Kilmer) a self-described "projectionalist," who takes them to the former residence of Amelia's boyfriend, "former" as it has recently been destroyed in a fire. The boyfriend's former employer was a porn producer who is hosting a party at his cliff-side mansion. 
It's an eventful party: March's daughter, Holly, stows away in the trunk of March's car, Healy runs into the toughs who roughed him up earlier, and March discovers the body of the porn producer, after drunkenly falling over a balcony railing and tumbling down the cliff. Oh, and they run into Amelia, who flees with Holly after being threatened by one of the thugs.
Things bump along, as the two detectives adjust to their working styles (or lack of them), just long enough to realize that they are out of their depth, the forces they're investigating being organized and a couple steps ahead of them, so that things get resolved but messily.
The movie is a bit shaggy-dog as far as clues-continuity—there are some leaps in logic and convenient encounters that only occur to you after the movie is over, as it entertains and Crowe and Gosling work overtime with a mis-matched relationship that, at times, recalls Abbott and Costello in their extremes (Gosling's March, when sober, has a funny coward's way of reacting to moments of stress)
Yes, that is a giant bee in March's back-seat, and, no, it's not a drug joke.
But, there's a nice through-line to the thing. The kids. While the adults are preoccupied with shuffling money around and their own narcissistic amoral short-term agendas, the kids are left to their own devices and having to make their way through, wondering if they have a future. The kids are alright, but they're judging, while the adults wander through the blighted glitz-scape accepting things for what they are, which is beyond their control. They've given up on the long-term, which, for the kids, hasn't even happened yet. 
And they're pissed. They're trying to understand the world they're growing into, to become adults, but they're getting the sense that their elders have given up on being adults themselves, so, if they're going to have any hopes and dreams besides having change in their pockets, they have no examples to look to. And feeling a definite disconnect with this L.A. world, like being little aliens in the landscape. No wonder they're insecure and going off the handle—no one wants to hold the handle! It's a latch-key world with deadbeat parents who not only do not care about doing the right thing, they've lost track of what that might be. In most of these "peeper" movies, it's the detective looking for answers who provides the moral center by his reactions to his discoveries. Not this movie. It's the kids, who are also looking for answers, who are the moral compass, pointing to true.

In most instances, the "kids are smarter than adults" trope comes off as precious or stupid, but The Nice Guys manages to make a great case for it, placing it in this genre, in this city, at this time. You tend to believe it. And wonder how they survived.
March demonstrates the "bad-breath tie" to Healy
(which sure looks improvised).

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