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Ryan Gosling recovers from another bad night in The Nice Guys.

Shane Black famously wrote the script for Lethal Weapon while still in his early 20s and then spent the better part of a decade wandering in the wilderness and suffering from a monumental case of writer’s block. He came back to prominence with his directorial debut, 2005’s delightful Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, where his work with Robert Downey Jr. eventually got him the gig directing Iron Man 3. Despite that, shaggy comedic crime thrillers like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang appear to be where his main strength lies. Further evidence of this is in The Nice Guys, an uproarious jolt of laughing gas that hits theaters this week.

Set in Los Angeles in 1977, the story starts in earnest with alcoholic private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) being punched in the face by self-loathing thug for hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). This happens in the palatial home that the widowed Holland is renting and sharing with his 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who chauffeurs her dad when he’s drunk and is easily the best detective of the three of them. Besides the punch, what brings them all together is the young environmental activist (Margaret Qualley) whom Holland and Jackson are both looking for and the porn film that she acted in, to which everyone connected seems to be getting killed.

The main selling point here is surely Gosling, who gives the funniest performance of his career as a bumbling weenie who barely seems to avoid accidentally shooting himself. Holland wraps his hand in cloth to break a window, and yet still cuts himself so badly that he passes out. Strapped for cash, he triumphantly negotiates a fee for himself that’s half of what a wealthy client is willing to pay. Gosling pulls off a virtuoso bit of physical comedy in a toilet stall when Holland tries and fails to manage his gun, the stall door, his magazine, his cigarette, and his pants all at the same time. Opposite him, Crowe makes a more than capable straight man — imagine his Bud White from L.A. Confidential getting fat and spiraling downward decades later, and you have Jackson. Still, it’s Gosling’s show from the off. The formidably smooth star of Drive and The Big Short not only consents to play the schlemiel here but seizes the part’s doofiness, and the result is a comic tour de force.

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Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi waste no opportunity to shoehorn gags into this hard-boiled saga, like Jackson and Holland’s understated reaction to the sight of a random bodyguard choking to death on his own blood, or Jackson’s brief flashback to his ex-wife blurting out her infidelity, or a kid (Jack Kilmer) leading the detectives to a house that’s been burned to the ground. “It looks a lot bigger now,” the kid says with genuine wonder in his voice. The filmmaker gets a lot of mileage out of both men’s hopelessly inadequate attempts to parent Holly and keep her out of danger. Even so, she steps in it repeatedly and is remarkably unfazed whether she’s staring at her first porno or staring down the barrel of a contract killer’s gun. Black has a well-earned rep for using women as half-naked or fully naked eye candy, but Holly winds up being one of the most complex female characters in any of his films, as well as this movie’s moral center and only source of emotional weight. Rice (the Australian girl from last year’s apocalyptic drama These Final Hours) holds her own with her Oscar-feted co-stars.

That said, the movie noticeably sputters in the last third, mostly because neither the Justice Department official (Kim Basinger) who ultimately hires Jackson and Holland nor the conspiracy to eradicate the porn film make any sense. The massive shootout at Holland’s house with a New York hit man (Matt Bomer) and the climactic one at an auto show lack the zest of the movie’s earlier action sequences, though the latter does have Holland diving for cover behind a floor model, failing to notice that the car is on a revolving dais that will give the bad guys a clear shot at him. Gags like that and Gosling’s revelatory performance make The Nice Guys into a nice summer treat.

[box_info]The Nice Guys
Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, and Angourie Rice. Directed by Shane Black. Written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi. Rated R.[/box_info]

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