The Nice Guys has you hoping that Holly, wise, clever, and charismatic, will eventually help redeem her cynical, brutal, alcoholic father.
"Are you a bad person?" Professional bully Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) looks directly at 13-year-old Holly (Angourie Rice) when she asks this question, night sky dark behind him. She's worried that he's killed a man, as she knows Healy's been working with her dad, the less than honest private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) on a case involving violent men with large weapons. Healy gives her the answer he knows she wants.
Partway through The Nice Guys, you know that Healy, an on-the-wagon, utterly cynical and deftly brutal alcoholic, is lying about the murder. You're also hoping, sort of, that Holly, wise, clever, and charismatic, will eventually help to redeem him, per the formula of this buddy-cop piece. As worn out as the formula may be, it's hard to resist once it's in motion. And it is in motion, relentlessly and propulsively, from frame one.
Set in 1977 Los Angeles, opens with a sensational boy's fantasy. A kid in pajamas (Ty Simpkins) sneaks his dad's porn mag out from under his parents' bed, then makes his way down the hallway, transfixed by the centerfold. Before you can say "E.T.", his life is changed forever by a blast, specifically, a car slamming off a not so distant mountain road into his house. The kid makes his way to the wreck, whereupon he discovers the victim, on her back so that her breasts, bare and gigantic, reveal that she is the very centerfold he'd been leering at in his dad's magazine. As he puts his pajama top over her chest and she dies, Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) speaks: "How do you like my car, big boy?"
The kid can't know it, but this is a clue, the sort of clue that tends to pop up in movies by Shane Black, the one-time kid wonder (he wrote the script for Lethal Weapon at just 25), which is to say, it's meaningful but also obscure, delivered ostentatiously. While its place in a puzzle of sex and money and corruption will be figured out later, for now, the boy's charm and the porn star's abject beauty establish a balance that will define the film, between salacious and sweet, violent and tender.
That balance is not precisely embodied by the guys at its center, Healy and March, even if they do suggest its parameters. For one thing, they teeter between nice and less than nice, and for another, they have to make their way through lots of cluttered plotting en route to the bonding that is their fate. They meet as guys tend to meet in such scenarios, by competing over a case.
Both are looking for a pretty girl in a yellow dress named Amelia (Margaret Qualley): she hired Healy to scare off some scary guys, then she disappeared, and March was hired by someone to find her. Complications and misunderstandings follow anon, the speed of unfolding plot points -- and patter -- as much a part of the Shane Black formula as the loud cars, the gunplay, and the sentimental saxophone.
In the midst of the men's business, Holly is at once predictable and refreshing, providing requisite moral judgment, helpful insights into the case, and a few plot contrivances initiated by her showing up at places where she might become, oh, for instance, a hostage risk. As much as the guys think they can get hold of the chaos raging around them, Holly's responses to their shenanigans remind them, and you too, that they are responsible, or maybe only that they can be. This, of course, is the predominant lesson offered in boy-bonding movies, from John Ford to Judd Apatow, in the sense that growing up and learning to share also means doing the right things because they're right, not because they might turn a profit.
Such lessons-learning is hard, of course, and The Nice Guys, emphasizing both the simultaneous irony and sincerity of its title, makes full use of Holly in the process. Adorable in her '70s stylings, her proto-tweeny high-waisted jeans and perfectly juvenile overalls, she's precocious and instructive but not irritating. Alternately patient with and horrified by her father, Holly makes clear that you're right to be appalled even if you laugh at his awkward phrasing, ridiculous assumptions, and embarrassing drunkenness. As she repeatedly sorts out situations -- who's to be trusted, who's not -- you find yourself taking her view more often than you do the two men who accompany her.
It's in this arrangement that The Nice Guys is not wholly a throwback movie. Certainly, it is that, in speedy pace and sometimes nonsensical plot. But if Holly can't help pull together pieces that make no sense, she might remind you that these pieces belong to another era, that revisiting that era might warrant rethinking, of that era and our own. She gets, without saying as much, that bad and good are relative ideas, and that forgiveness is a daily act.
For her, sex isn't frightening or sleazy, language is a useful and creative means of communication, and bad behavior can be pointed out for what it is. “Mr. Healy," she declares late in the film, knowing full well that he's lied to her before, "If you kill this man, I will never speak to you again.” If this guy can think again, so too can the rest of us, filmmakers and film watchers alike.