Last night I watched Shane Black’s buddy comedy The Nice Guys for the first time since I watched it in a Detroit theater in the summer of 2016. The film holds up so nicely (I’ll try to avoid that word as much as I can) that I was half tempted to rewatch it a second time today. On the surface, the film is a nice (shoot!) comedy about two private eyes in 1970s Los Angeles. On a deeper level, the film taps into many interesting sociopolitical concerns that have been addressed in other recent films and television shows.
The set-up is that Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, a widower, father to a precocious young daughter, and former L.A. cop turned private detective. He’s on case searching for a girl named Amelia, played by Margaret Qualley (who was also in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film that shares a lot of common ground with this one). Amelia doesn’t want to be found so she pays a local muscle enforcer from the Bronx named Jackson Healy, played wonderfully and believably by Russell Crowe, to rough up March and tell him to stop looking for her. March, Healy, and March’s daughter Holly then form an unlikely alliance to find Amelia when they realize she’s in danger and involved in a convoluted and deadly conspiracy involving the big three car companies from Detroit.
When I first saw The Nice Guys, the friend I saw the film with said that it reminded him of what he expected Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice to be like. Black’s film takes place in 1977 Los Angeles while Anderson’s film is set in 1970 L.A. They both include conspiracies where the unseen rich and powerful get away with a lot for the sake of profit. Like with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, both films have a commodity at the center of their conspiracies: in Inherent Vice, it is physical land to be developed as well as heroin to be sold while in The Nice Guys it is Detroit-made automobiles. The film also brings to mind Todd Phillip’s Joker. Both films share a ‘pastness’-signifying Time Warner logo from the late 1970s or early 1980s as well as pollution that stands in for the pervasiveness and destructiveness of late capitalism. In Joker, it is the ever present garbage bags on the streets of 1980 New York City while in The Nice Guys it is the constant smog hanging above Los Angeles.
One interesting thing to note is the way that the film both critiques and reinforces American capitalist patriarchy. Like Tarantino’s two he-men in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, March and Healy are actually rather conservative figures despite their hipster beards. They both complain frequently about how the generation after them has lost their way. This is glimpsed most comically in a scene where March and Healy attend a symbolic protest where young activists protest the smog in the air by pretending to be dead at City Hall. March and Healy are confused because the protesters are wearing gas masks. “Wouldn’t the gas masks save you?” they ask, and the protesters are puzzled by the question. They are another variation of the self-involved, self-righteous, and stupid Manson Family members in Tarantino’s film, though much more benign.
The film also critiques the patriarchy. March is far from a competent father. Healy is probably closer to a sociopath than just a tough guy. The heart of the film lies with Holly, the young girl who is both smart and compassionate. Most interestingly, by the time the conspiracy is revealed, the patriarchal white villains’ ethnic henchmen and henchwoman played by Keith David, Yaya DaCosta, and Beau Knapp are killed by the Nice Guys or at least beaten up and the white female head of the Department of Justice, played by Kim Basinger, is left behind as the villains’ scapegoat. Black’s film is much wiser than it seems. For the Nice Guys live and get to move on to other cases while the bad guys get away with murder. Welcome to the neoliberal world.