A Shane Black movie takes place at the four-way intersection of clever, outrageous, sleazy, and smug. Sometimes the traffic zips along. Sometimes it stalls. It's LA — the only thing that matters is forward motion.
Black is best known as the writer who made his bones with the "Lethal Weapon" series, but he directed an antic, hilarious modern noir called "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" with Robert Downey Jr. back in 2005. "The Nice Guys," his third time behind the camera (there was also 2013's "Iron Man 3"), plays like a coarser, brawnier retread of the debut. The stars, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, are aces. A young actress named Angourie Rice just about walks off with the movie. And you may feel like taking a shower afterward.
The setting is 1977 Los Angeles, and the opening credits are pure "Boogie Nights" down to the waka-waka porn guitar on the soundtrack. A young boy is ogling his dad's skin magazine when a car crashes through his living room and lands in the pool. The dying driver is none other than the centerfold model, an adult-film actress named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). As the camera pans lovingly across her bloodied nude body, the audience is jammed uncomfortably between shocked laughter and retro lechery. That's more or less where the movie remains for the next two hours.
Crowe, who's the size of a Humvee here and has the force of authority to match, plays hired muscle Jackson Healy. Gosling, in spacey screw-up mode, is Holland March, a private investigator and grieving widower with a fondness for the bottle and a 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Rice), who's smarter than he is. Healy shows up at March's door to tell him to lay off a case; he accomplishes this by breaking the latter's arm. A day later, he returns and suggests they team up. There's a mystery, and it has something to do with the dead porn star and a missing girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley of TV's "The Leftovers").
In terms of plot, Black likes to throw curveballs, sinkers, sliders, spitballs, anything that will keep us off balance. He goes increasingly wide of the plate, though, and about halfway in you realize he doesn't care so why should we? But you stick around for the shtick that plays against our expectations — March tossing Healy a gun during a firefight only to see it miss and crash through a window, a corpse that lands with a splat in the middle of a backyard party — and the slippery, snide dialogue. The right kind of movie star (talented, subversive, male) can have a great time playing in Black's sandbox.
Gosling, in fact, reveals a knack for physical comedy that can be breathlessly funny, as when Healy corners March in a men's room stall and the latter tries to juggle the door, a gun, a magazine, and a lit cigarette, all with his pants down. A few times the actor flails, wheezing like Lou Costello when March finds an unexpected body (one of many re-dos from "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"). For the most part the two costars breeze happily along.
Everything around them feels slightly icky, though. "The Nice Guys" hits all the Me Decade buttons — Atari Pong console, check; gas lines around the corner, check — and the digitally added layer of smog that blankets LA is practically a character in its own right. The entire film feels greasy. It's a smog noir: Smoir.
The porn-industry subplot gives Black a chance to wallow in breasts and butts — it's not leering, it's nostalgia! — and a queasy low point comes when the adolescent Holly, a wised-up Nancy Drew, sneaks into an adult film premiere party in the hills. She's joining her dad and his new partner in sleuthing but winds up in a projection room watching the action and correcting partygoers' grammar when they talk about a particularly graphic sex act. Haw haw.
What saves these scenes is Rice, who plays levelheaded with charm and poise and whom I hope goes on to better things. (She probably will; the actress is from Australia and they grow them freaky talented there.) By contrast, Qualley is simply dreadful in the scene in which Amelia explains the big mystery, and Kim Basinger is wasted in a thankless role as a Department of Justice higher-up with secrets. Apparently, Black can only write one good role for an actress per film.
Well, you don't go to "The Nice Guys" for the sensitivity training. And certainly part of its low-down pleasure is the enthusiasm with which Black and company throw political correctness to the LA winds. But for a movie predicated on slapstick forward momentum, we spend an awful lot of time driving backward.
THE NICE GUYS
Directed by Shane Black. Written by Black and Anthony Bagarozzi. Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 116 minutes. R (violence, sexuality, nudity, language, brief drug use).
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.