The Nice Guys spells summer like a curly straw in a cocktail. Scrambling together private-eye tropes with the counterculture is, by now, an old and venerable sport for the brightest minds in the business. I wrote about the subgenre last year, citing the continuity of hipsterism from Chandler to Vietnam. The detectives are only cosmetically different from Humphrey Bogart and other forebears; it’s the world that is perceived to have changed. In the post-’60s ecosystem, the P.I. is the patsy, the Establishment is the perpetrator. Holding the Establishment accountable is like betting against the house. You might win the battle, but the war rages on.
Problem is, we’re coming up short on revelations. P. T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which is this movie’s nearest neighbor, was a postmortem on clichés that are old enough to stink like truths. Groovy trip, but still a trip. It butt up against the Establishment only to reaffirm its unknowability. Shane Black, who directed The Nice Guys, isn’t looking for truths he couldn’t find, concealed as they are behind an Establishment firewall. Hippie grievances, for which there is little evidence that the filmmaker feels much sympathy, are sweetened into an anachronistic whine. (Even though we’re supposed to be in L.A., in 1977, those knucklehead protesters should know that we’ll fix the smog problem eventually.) For Black, the counterculture clichés are alive and well—to the point: they are alive. The movie doesn’t aspire to that level of thought that freezes fusty clichés into knee-jerk despair, so the whole thing melts in one’s mouth like a daiquiri. It’s a slurper.
Part of its sweetness comes from Black throwing another genre into the blender, the buddy movie. (N.B.: He wrote Lethal Weapon.) This probably seems like less of an adjustment than it is; having a partner sucks the bitter venom out of the gumshoe, the ur-loner of American cinema. The partners are Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, divinely paired and raising their own Nancy Drew (Gosling’s 13-year-old daughter, played by Angourie Rice). The plot is hardly worth mentioning—a genre staple, going back to The Big Sleep—though I’ll register my weariness at seeing the porn world thrown in, as it is whenever so much as a leisure suit is in wardrobe.
It feels naive to reward this movie for boilerplate merits—no explosions, no superheroes, no brand recognition, etc.—because those elements are substituted with folderol from an older school that the audience has since graduated from. So many of Black’s “touches” are like raw material for a script by Robert Towne. The Crowe character, for instance, is given oodles of Irish-kid-from-the-Bronx exposition and a scene where he drinks his first Yoo-hoo in 30 years. These are the rudiments of a theme about being out of step with one’s times, perfectly appropriate for this setting, but it’s window dressing, at best. Honestly, though, I was glad that Black didn’t entirely follow though on his sterling opener, which delivers a porn-mag pinup to a teenage reader, via her car crashing through his kitchen. It presaged an all-too-meta treatise on wish-fulfillment—something that Black has ceded, to his credit, to the Tarantinos of the world.
Rest assured that from these qualifications I emerge with a smile. For me to say that there’s a lot missing is not the same as me saying that there’s a lot that’s missed, or would be missed in a Chinatown or an Inherent Vice. Perhaps a better man than myself would have lunged first at the film’s strengths, including its surprising decency: the teenager drapes his shirt over the porn star after she dies; the senseless killings are rebutted when Rice shows mercy for a hood who Crowe would just as soon see croak. Crowe, who’s been a symbol of big-time-movie-star disillusion lately—a precedent set by Brando, though Crowe more accurately follows in Richard Burton’s heavy footsteps—uses his world-weariness to burnish his comic performance. Gosling, to whom he’s foil, simulates gracelessness with the utmost grace. He’s like the Greek god of slipping on banana peels.
One day, someone will write a dissertation about how Gosling’s choice of roles exemplified how male celebrity was constructed in the early 2000s. It’s still too early to finish such a thesis, but I’d suggest that it start with the contrast between his readymade iconography in Drive and his shamus ignoramus here, right about at the point where he tries to punch through a window to break into a bar and ends up escorted to a hospital instead. His reaction to lighting a match, and discovering a corpse in its glow, makes the old gag shine. This is a not-lazy performance in a not-lazy movie. The quips are sung by the actors, simmered in chemistry, and sold in post.
In refuting, or at least expressing apathy toward, the core premise of the counterculture noir—not that the system is rigged, but that it matters that the system is rigged—The Nice Guys should not be looked to for revelations, as I’m sure the vast majority of its viewers already know or will hopefully find out to their delight. But its complacency could actually be obsolete. On the one hand, Bernie Sanders, swinging at what might have looked like windmills only a year ago, has demonstrated that the counterculture and the campus revolutionaries of the 1960s were part of something more than a failed experiment in idealism. According to Marissa Brostoff, Sanders’s primary campaign has challenged the narrative that has been ascendant throughout my lifetime, which maintains “that only two options … could exist … for aging radicals: sell out, or fade into Lebowskian obscurity.” In other words, contrary to the defeatist sensibility of the counterculture noir, Americans still care that the system is rigged and are willing to bet against the house to fix it. And those Americans aren’t just liberals.
On the other hand, according to Nathan Heller, now that the baby boomers have grown old and we have enough distance to perform a postmortem on their clichés, “The historic bracket that opened in the sixties is starting to close; the boomers’ memoirs of becoming no longer lead up to the present.” There isn’t necessarily a contradiction in this, not least because Sanders, who many young, liberal, well-educated voters support, is pre-boomer. The problem is that today’s campus revolutionaries, like the Oberlin students that Heller profiles, are coming to the same conclusion that their boomer predecessors reached, and coming to it prematurely: The system is rigged, reforming it is hopeless. Compromise is not an option. Put another way, they’re in danger of becoming Little Lebowskis. The grandfatherly senator may be the new tribune of old ideals, rescuing the reputation of the ’60s just as many of his supporters (at least many in their cohort) are putting the institutions it created in flux. Whatever you think of his politics, those who want to emulate his career should know there’s a catch: you have to spend a few generations in the wilderness if you hope to make it big.
If or when these undercurrents eventually shape our culture, I hope one of their effects is a fresh and revelatory angle on the counterculture noir, a new ending that doesn’t default to defeat—if bad box office and changes in form and consumption don’t defeat the subgenre first. In fact, this movie, whether it intended to or not, could signal the beginning of the end. The Nice Guys aren’t able to take down the Establishment, but, since—spoiler alert?—the Establishment is revealed to consist of Detroit automakers who are covering up their complicity in Los Angeles being choked with smog, Black’s attitude toward corruption could simply be that the Establishment will do itself in in the long run. The clouds will one day part themselves; it’s what Martin Luther King, Jr., might have called the “snark of the moral universe.” Alas, Black can be forgiven for not being King. Social unrest is a strong shot to take. Thankfully, The Nice Guys is an ideal chaser.