For years, I've worried that Ryan Gosling owns a trick mirror. He looks into it and sees Steve McQueen, that macho '70s star who kept his mouth shut. That worked for McQueen, but with Gosling it's a waste. He's not a brute. He's a charmer, and in his best movies he uses his soft, silvery voice like an enchantment, spinning out slick line after slick line until everyone within earshot falls in love. It's like he locked his jaw just so he didn't get trapped making The Notebook 2. He wanted to prove he had more range. But he's gone about it all wrong with a string of movies in which he plays mostly mutes, men like Driver in Drive, who somehow wins over Carey Mulligan without a word, unless you count that time he asked her to get him a glass of water.
Our long national nightmare has come to an end. In his new movie, the retro-sleazebag action comedy The Nice Guys, Gosling is the best he has ever been. As Hollywood private investigator Holland March, Gosling sweet-talks nice old ladies into paying him to find people he barely bothers to hunt. He's more interested in the squeeze, convincing his clients that he's right on the scent … if they have more money. But even a louse like March feels guilty about his latest customer: a granny looking for her granddaughter, who's lost in more ways than one. The girl, Misty Mountains, was swallowed up by the porn industry. And in the opening scene, she has already fatally driven her blue convertible off a cliff, croaking her final words — "How do you like my car, big boy?" — to a bad-luck kid who'd just been ogling her centerfold. But the elderly woman is convinced Misty is alive, and so Holland takes the case — and the cash — and immediately runs into trouble when hired thug Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) orders him to quit the case. For emphasis, Healy breaks March's wrist, and Gosling opens his mouth wide for a ninnying wail.
Crowe and Gosling are a perfect mismatch. With Crowe in big-shouldered leather jackets and Gosling in skinny suits, they skulk around Los Angeles like a bear and a weasel who just escaped from the circus. Here, Healy is the quiet type. But March's nonstop bragging brings out his own buried chatterbox, and the two spit lines back and forth in a display of male dominance. Director Shane Black and cowriter Anthony Bagarozzi's dialogue is aces. When Healy refers to Miss Mountains as a "porno actress," March instantly corrects him: "'The porno young lady." Gosling is great at deadpan jokes, especially when he's playing a dummy. Yet what really win us over are his arms and legs. We know he can dance — just watch clips of him doing the Roger Rabbit on The Mickey Mouse Club. Now, he mutates that grace into brilliant, bumbling physical comedy, like a bit in which March, surprised on a toilet, tries to look tough while juggling a gun, a cigarette, his cast, his pants, and the bathroom door.
Along for the adventure is March's 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), one of that last generation of latchkey kids forced to fend for themselves. While the film around her sickens itself trying to capture the feel of 1977 with ugly shirts and rooms coated in fuzzy pink, orange, and green like someone threw up sherbet on a rug, and the score has the grime of a key party in a basement rec room, Holly's unchecked childhood feels the most insanely out-of-date. "Kids these days know too much," grunts March, two decades before the Internet put every child a click away from untold online horrors. Yet Holly is a headstrong delight. Along with Tomorrowland's Casey, she makes it cool to be a smart, tough girl. She definitely didn't get her brains from her dad, who can't even smash a door jamb without slicing open his wrist and going to the hospital.
The actual mystery isn't as interesting as the fuss the trio make solving it. None of it makes a cologne spritz of sense, and when the film slams on the brakes to explain, we'd rather it didn't bother. What sucks us in is, simply, Black's confidence: Every frame of the film feels like a mad scientist in full control of his monster. He's the perfect filmmaker to give the dated buddy action-comedy a jolt of life — after all, Black wrote one of the last good ones, 1987's Lethal Weapon. Black plays with the audience, showing us things the characters miss — say, poor doomed Misty's car hurtling over a cliff, which we spot through a kitchen window 20 agonizing seconds before it smashes through the house. He's devilish with misdirection. There aren't many shocking twists in comedies about good guys versus bad guys (or honestly, kinda goodish guys versus murdering heels), but as the film speeds toward its happy ending, Black yanks the wheel just enough to remind us that he's the mastermind in charge.
And here's something I can't believe I'm saying: I'm stoked that The Nice Guys leaves itself open for a sequel. Please, Shane Black: Keep Gosling goofy, and his shooting schedule so full he doesn't have time to glower.