The world isn’t fair. That’s the message of Shane Black’s happily unkempt The Nice Guys, both onscreen and off. In a better timeline, we’d be on our third or fourth go-round with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as undeservedly smug private eyes. Alas, despite some of us seeing The Nice Guys for the comedic masterpiece that it was in 2016—back when we noted that it’s “so confident it borders on arrogance”—few others did, and the movie crashed and burned at the box office.
So return visits to the Nice Guys Detective Agency will never be in the cards. Nonetheless, Black’s sardonic buddy movie has still found its audience over the last six years, becoming something of a cult classic and recently even earning the lofty accolade of cracking Netflix’s “Top 10” algorithm. Better late than never, eh?
It’s easy to imagine Gosling’s Holland March making that same shallow observation over shots at two in the afternoon with Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). That is, after all, the ending of The Nice Guys. Filled with gallows humor cynicism and a devil-may-care attitude, the closing moments of Black’s film are full of self-aware winks and nods to the audience, right down to Holland passing his daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who deserves far better than chaperoning these two knuckleheads at the watering hole during school hours. But there she is, next to Christmas decorations, which obliquely nod to Black’s most passionate fans who know his best screenplays are set during Christmas: Lethal Weapon (1987), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). In its final moments, The Nice Guys follows this trend with a smirk and a sneer in a script Black co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi.
Like much of the rest of the movie—which in its most blissful moments can combine the good vibes of Earth, Wind & Fire with Gosling doing a pitch perfect Lou Costello impression—it’s so funny that you can be forgiven if you miss the crying despair bubbling beneath. For example, that uncanny Earth, Wind & Fire cover act occurs while the band is performing at a seedy 1970s porn industry party; and Gosling is all but bellowing “who’s on first?!” because a group of relatively innocent folks were systematically murdered by the Big Auto capitalists in Detroit.
So at the end of the movie, March and Healy have reasons to be happy, at least on a surface level. In spite of bumbling their way through one disaster after another, they recovered a film reel that proves there was both a conspiracy to suppress evidence of automobile pollution in the 1970s, as well as a sinister plot wherein a DOJ attorney (Kim Basinger) cooperated in the murder of at least four people, including the attorney’s own activist daughter, Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Amelia originally employed Healey’s services for protection, and March agreed to find and ultimately save her. They failed. Amelia died, brutally, due to the machinations of her own mother. And at movie’s end, March and Holland are on the same page, cracking wise. But is that a good thing?
In the most telling line of The Nice Guys’ epilogue, March offers this bit of solace: “At least you’re drinking again.”
Crowe’s visibly wasted Healey slurs, “Yeah. Feels great.” It’s funny, yet far, far from a happy ending.
In its bones, The Nice Guys is a noir, although neither in the style of the traditional film noir movement from the ‘40s and ‘50s or the neo noir revival of the 1970s. Black has long been inspired by both eras of hardboiled crime fiction, and pays homage to it with The Nice Guys’ 1977 setting. However, this ‘77 San Fernando Valley backdrop is as much a nostalgia show for a filmmaker who moved to Southern California as a teenager in 1976 as it is homage.
Still, there’s a melancholy here, and it’s louder than even the largely forgotten suicide fixations of Black’s first script, Lethal Weapon. At least that movie’s Riggs and Murtagh are supposed to be big damn Hollywood heroes. The Nice Guys’ March and Healey, by contrast, are not good people. The 2016 movie even makes this explicit when we’re introduced to the scene-stealing charisma of a young Angourie Rice. Her onscreen father, played by Gosling, asks, “Am I bad person?” Without a moment’s hesitation, she says, “Yes.” There’s no snark or affection in the 11-year-old’s reply, just a faint sense of disgust. Why would you ask me such a stupid question?
Much of the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes at the end of The Nice Guys is derived from March and Healey being able to change Holly’s mind. In the climactic moments of the film, Healey—a man who we’ve seen methodically murder other killers in cold blood—is convinced by Holly not to kill the nastiest sociopath in the whole film, Matt Bomer’s reptilian John Boy, who slaughtered Amelia. Meanwhile Holly’s own father, who she previously wrote off as a useless lush, manages to recover the evidence that condemns executives within Detroit’s Big Three. Amusingly, he sees a message left on his hand by Holly—“you will never be happy”—has become smudged. It now reads, “You will be happy.”
Our heroes’ true redemption comes in the eyes of a child. Which does count for something. But everything else they fought for? It’s pretty meaningless.
Take Healey, the one who starts drinking again. He comes from an arguably darker place than the alcoholic and corrupt March. Unlike March, Healey has no daughter to at least put his shittiness in perspective. There’s a bleakly succinct backstory offered for Crowe’s character in a flashback where, over dinner at a nice restaurant, his wife says, “Jack, I’m fucking your dad.” Crowe’s literal spit-take, with wine dribbling down his quivering mouth, is an example of how surgically Black refuses to leave a single potential laugh on the table. But it’s also heartbreaking.
Until the end of the movie, this flashback is the only time we see Healey drink. We learn later he got on the wagon after “the best moment of his life,” which consisted of drunkenly tackling a robber wielding a shotgun… that then discharged into Healey’s arm. Other than this personal highlight, Healey’s existence has descended into a series of thug jobs where he agrees to beat up strangers for money. Many of them deserve it, such as the pedophile whose nose gets broken in Healey’s first scene; many do not, including Gosling’s March, who has his wrist shattered twice over by Healey in their meet-cute.
Really, the only good thing about Healey other than his sense of professional courtesy is his desire to handle life with “equanimity.” So he doesn’t drink booze, doesn’t cheat clients (unlike March), and is happy to take a Yoo-hoo from a young girl after sending her father to the hospital.
At the end of the movie, that’s over. In the final shot, March and Healey cheers, now as official partners and private dicks. The out of control drunkard of the pair, March, is holding a glass; the previously on the wagon Healey is drinking straight from the bottle.
This underscores the true nihilistic heart of noir that beats throughout the movie: Nice Guys will never win.
Before the closing toast, we hear the protagonists admit Basinger’s hopelessly corrupt DOJ murderer was right. “You can’t beat Detroit.”
“They’re going to let them off, the car companies, scott-free,” Healey laments. “Not enough evidence of collusion. Some went up, some went down. Nothing changes, just like she said.”
March responds, “Look, they got away with it, big surprise. You know people are stupid but they’re not that stupid. The point is five years, tops, we’re all driving electric cars from Japan.”
The Nice Guys is leaning into your meta-knowledge of what historically comes next. Basinger saying you can’t beat Detroit is ironic because Detroit did lose its automotive supremacy in the U.S…. but not because the government cleaned house with corrupt capitalist interests. Rather larger capitalist forces from overseas, including Japan, squeezed the Big Three from the 1980s onward. Even so, to this day “electric cars” that don’t contribute as severely to pollution (and, as we later learned, climate change) remain a minority, with the same companies suppressing fossil fuel-free innovations for decades.
March’s silver lining is as empty as him saying, “Nobody got hurt.” His buddy counters, “Some people got hurt.” To which March equivocates, “I’m saying I think they died quickly, so I don’t think that they got hurt.”
With the exception of establishing Holly’s love and respect, nothing this pair did matters. And instead of building from that, she’s left standing idyll by the bar’s entrance, an idol of the latch key generation’s age, while Dad and the more forthright Uncle Healey revert to the same old vices… except Healey’s become demonstrably worse than when he started, drinking again, and more than Holland.
At least there’s that.