The Nice Guys – touching on tough subjects without comment. (Film Review)

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The Nice Guys

The complex notion of the teen age girl as seen through the eyes of men remains predictably unresolved in Shane Blacks The Nice Guys. The opening scenes reveal a teenage boy coming to terms with females and as expected its through a sexual context. The Nice Guys is set in nineteen seventy-seven, so the film’s time frame acts as a superficial rescue for its clumsier attempts at realizing a young teenage girl as subject. But it is worth noting the brilliant opening scene reveals a boy of comparable age stealing a girlie mag from under his father’s bed, and this scene and its consequences give us a more rounded figure of the teen boy than the attempted fully-fleshed character of Holly March (Angourie Rice), one of the films leads. We first meet Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe) as a muscle man for hire choosing to focus on keeping hebephiles away from teenage girls, but he does it for money (not enough and he’s out) and to satisfy a notion he could be a good person inside after all. As anticipated he is rescued from himself by the angelic aspects of Holly, as is her father (Ryan Gosling) whom she is desperate to admire despite his hopelessness and general bumbling engagement with life. The character of Holly is reduced to the clichés of saving innocent while haunted in real life by detective work (alongside her father) that takes her deep into the world of pornographic film.

Starkly missing from the film is the female voice. Holly is horribly under-realised and exists as a male fantasy; part innocent savior, part budding nymphette, part Hermoine Granger super sleuth. The younger males who appear in the film with shorter screen time are always full subjects, separate from parents, eking out their identity as teens. Holly is stuck to her father, condemned to a life reflected in the consequences of his actions. One of the few times we see Holly as subject is when she is fascinated by a porno film, watching it with one of its stars, with whom she becomes friends. Her only avenue to autonomise is via sex (hetro male identified of course) and as the visions of Russell Crowe beating up older suitors tells us – teenage girl sex is bad, no matter how much we subliminally reinforce it. While this can be claimed of the teen males in the film, their sexualisation represents freedom. Holly’s represents danger and compromise.

Because under-realized female characters are the norm rather than the exception, one is forced to forgive a film this good for going there (again) and consider other aspects of what makes it such an enjoyable ride. The principle leads work better together than expected, and Russell Crowe’s laid back aging hit man is perfect for the fast paced snappy dialog proving to be a formidable straight man. Ryan Gosling (who packs a mean bulge through the film) emerges as a strong comedic talent with a facility for slapstick exemplified in a well executed toilet scene. But the real star of The Nice Guys is Richard Bridgland’s production design supported by David Utley’s art direction and Danielle Berman’s set decoration. Forgoing the yellow wash symbolism of late seventies visuals, the colors in the sets are vibrant and rich, preferencing seventies neon over the dusty realism of films from the era. It makes for a thrilling take on the now cool retro look, suddenly made vogue as a kind of anti-hipster statement, infusing the scenes with a visual vibrancy missing from the other films.

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An attempt at depth is made with a spurious but successful narrative connection between Detroit’s car industry, smog killing birds and the porn industry. This connection is carried forward by our knowledge of Detroit’s demise but the porn connection is left curiously unrealized to the detriment of the film. The opening scenes, a teen boy looking at an image of a naked woman in a girlie mag who then crashes her car through his house, only to be flung from the car covered in blood in the same pose as the erotic image, evokes a strong indicator the subject of porn, its sacrificial symbolism and its infiltration into society and in the seventies are up for examination. This never happens although strong messages continue to be fed to the audience. The aforementioned image of Holly watching porn with the film’s star and a teenage boy offering to show his penis for twenty dollars, hint at the contemporary proliferation of pornography but never engage with it. Given the films successful intention to marry future knowledge with the past its surprising this goes nowhere. In his resistance to clumsy preachiness, Shane Black has avoided dealing with a subject he perpetuates and while this is a blessing if he really doesn’t know what to say, the inclusion of young teens in the conversation at all appears exploitative for the sake of risqué comedy – something this funny film refuses to do on other subjects. It’s a bit messy and smacks of lost opportunities.

However, with all this, The Nice Guys is a fun film full of genuinely funny laughs including strong performances from its three leads. It’s a film I’d reach for again – mostly for the production design.

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