If I had to describe The Nice Guys (2016) in one word, it would be “underrated.” Though it achieved instant critical acclaim, its modest performance at the box office prevented it from achieving both a mass audience and fulfilling its potential as a franchise. But the concept of being “underrated,” of having people and the world around you think less of what you really are, was baked into this film’s identity even before its somewhat disappointing release. This adjective permeates almost everything about it, from its story to its sense of humor and even its commentary on life itself. This idea of being “underrated” is best embodied in the performance given by Ryan Gosling. That performance as one of the film’s two leads, which subverts his knack for playing reserved tough guys with the help of his great comedic talents, is the heart of the movie as well as an encapsulation of its comedic, underdog-loving spirit.
The Nice Guys takes place in Los Angeles in 1977. Down on his luck private investigator Holland March (Gosling) works oddball cases to support himself and his compassionate teenage daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). One day, while trying to find a young woman named Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley, in her first significant performance), March crosses paths with brutal enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). Though the two men initially clash, they eventually start working together to find out what Amelia knows about the murder of an adult film actress named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio). Their investigation finds both men bantering and bonding as they explore the violent underbelly of Los Angeles and secretly hope for a shot to show the world that they are more than what it thinks of them.
Director/co-writer Shane Black provides both of his leads with a perfect and economical first scene. For example, hardboiled Healy’s introductory scene features him beating up a creepy man to protect a 13-year-old girl, all the while spouting hard-nosed lines in his voice-over like “But if you got trouble with someone…you might ask around for me” and “marriage is buying a house for someone you hate.” You might expect March’s first scene to also establish him as a gutsy tough guy, especially since he is played by Gosling. In previous films like Drive (2011) or Only God Forgives (2013), he had excelled at playing quiet loners who expressed themselves more through silent looks and acts of violence than they did with words. After seeing Crowe do his best impression of a tough guy, you might expect Gosling to give his, too.
Black immediately establishes that this will not be the case. In contrast to Healy, who was first introduced standing and getting ready to punch someone, Black shows March lying in a bathtub as he wakes up from a nap. The phone rings, and the camera tilts up to reveal that March is wearing a full suit in the wet tub. As he hears a voice message from his daughter, March tries to move out of the tub, only to fall. Undeterred, March crawls to the phone, only to miss the message. Saddened, he looks at something he wrote on his hand: “you will never be happy,” with a smiley face drawn underneath it. March soon begins to speak in his own voice-over. But unlike the one Healy has, his is much more wearied, as evidenced by its first line: “I wish I wished for things, man.” This brief scene sets up almost everything that you need to know about March. He is visibly sadder than Healy, seems less competent, and is much more ridiculous. But at the same time, March demonstrates a great will to not give up. He may not pick up the phone before it stops ringing, but you get a feeling from his awkward yet determined crawling that it was only due to time. Despite his wearied air, there’s a will to survive that underlies everything he does.
March might seem best defined by two Yiddish words: “schlemiel” and “schlimazel.” There’s an old saying that, at a dinner, a schlemiel is someone who spills soup while the schlimazel is the person who gets the soup spilled onto them. It is easy to imagine March fulfilling both roles simultaneously (by spilling soup onto himself). Throughout The Nice Guys, March suffers everything from grief (his wife died before the events of the film), terrible work assignments, as well as repeated instances of physical harm that range from Healy breaking his arm to falling off a ledge and down a big hill. But Gosling consistently mines March’s bad luck for comedy gold. He reacts to this long and varied string of misfortune with a hilarious array of funny faces, bits of physical comedy that would’ve played well in the silent era, and perfect comedic timing. One of his reactions to his bad luck is arguably the funniest moment in the whole film. It comes when Healy breaks March’s arm, because it causes Gosling to let out a high-pitched scream which sounds like an old woman sobbing after someone has broken her favorite vase. It’s a moment that I can’t watch without laughing.
But even though March is on the receiving end of many of the film’s jokes, he is much more than a comedic fool. He has a sense of pathos due to his tragic backstory (his inability to smell prevented him from stopping the fire which killed his wife) and Gosling grounds his antics in the type of exhaustion you can get when you feel like your best days are behind you, if you even had them at all. In addition, Gosling makes you feel the frustration that March feels when he is misunderstood or underrated. Though he masks it with sarcasm, you can still feel the pain he gets when Holly calls him the “world’s worst detective” and that she hates him.
This sense of being underestimated or misunderstood is something that seems to influence the parts that Gosling likes to play. In an interview to promote The Gray Man (2022), Gosling noted that he likes the Universal movie monsters because “they’re misunderstood…they’re having a hard time. We can all relate, I think, on some level.” That quote applies not only to March, but to many of Gosling’s most beloved characters. Lars Lindstrom in Lars and the Real Girl is thought of as strange for having a sex doll, but his surprisingly sweet and nonsexual relationship with “Bianca” ends up serving as the catalyst for him to finally overcome the trauma which has defined his entire life. His nameless character in Drive is thought of as an ice-cold force for violence, but he proves that he possesses great reserves of compassion that he uses in vain attempts to help Irene Gabriel (Carey Mulligan) and her family. More recently, Ken in Barbie chafes at being unable to be “kenough” to win Barbie’s love. All of them try to show the people around them that they are more than what they believe them to be.
One of the things about being misunderstood or underrated is that it makes showing someone what you can really do even more satisfying. Despite his bad luck and moments of stupidity, March does provide value to the investigation that he conducts with Healy. He’s good at deducing things and makes almost all the important breakthroughs in figuring out who killed Misty Mountains and what Amelia has been planning. Later, after March has figured out the answer to a mystery it has taken him the whole film to solve, he sarcastically but sweetly says “world’s worst detective, huh” to Holly with a gleam in his eye. That moment, and later ones where March learns that he is worthy of happiness or smiles as he’s realized that he has proved himself to the people in his life who matter the most, are even more rewarding because of how quickly they disprove what the people around him had long thought of him.
At this point in time, it’s hard to watch Gosling as the hapless March and not think about the performance he would go on to give as Ken in Barbie (2023). At times, due to his hilarious line readings and moments of exuberant physical comedy, it is tempting to view this performance as a type of dry run for the work he would do in Barbie, much like how it is tempting to view Qualley’s performance in this film, with its chaotic energy and statements supporting radical politics, as a rehearsal for her work in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. But March is also his own character, especially when you analyze him within the context of what might be one of Gosling’s favorite words: “kenergy.”
What does that word mean, you might ask? Gosling defined “kenergy” as both “a word I made up on a press junket so I didn’t have to really answer any questions, that’s haunted me ever since” and “the strength and vitality required for a sustained period of Kenning,” which he went on to describe as both “another random word I made up” and a verb meaning “ to give more than is necessary or required to reflect so that others might shine.” Do those highly academic yet totally made-up phrases apply to Golsing’s performance as March?
At a first glance, March might seem like he has kenergy. Gosling is billed second after Crowe, and he does excel at supporting him. In fact, whether it is people with whom he has multiple scenes like Rice or one-scene wonders like Lance Valentine Butler as the adult-minded Kid on Bike, Gosling’s reactions to their idiosyncrasies makes all of them shine brighter than they would against a different actor. Watching him reflect their moments of comedic success so that they shine more is a little like watching him support Margot Robbie in Barbie.
But the key quality of Gosling’s performance which makes March less of a proto-Ken and more of his own character is his effortlessness. He doesn’t give more than is necessary or required to reflect so that the people around him might shine. Instead, his straight-faced responses to the lunacy around him feels effortless. He elevates Healy, Holly, as well as all the scoundrels and oddballs of Los Angeles that he interacts with not by putting in too much work, but simply by being himself. For me, Gosling’s performance as Ken is like Gene Kelly, because his every movement and line reading to support others demonstrates the great, highly athletic effort that he puts in to make sure that they might shine. In contrast, Gosling’s performance as March is like Fred Astaire, because it has an ease and confidence to it which make everything he does seem effortless, even if it may not feel that way to the beleaguered March.
The Nice Guys seems destined for an afterlife as a beloved cult classic, the type of thing you can’t or won’t turn off whenever you see that it’s on cable or want to watch on a streaming service on a Friday night. But it also deserves to be acknowledged as having one of Gosling’s best performances. It captures the mixture of charisma, comedic chops, and sincerity which have helped make him beloved and will probably net him at least another Academy Award nomination for his work on Barbie. While I would love for there to be a whole franchise of films starring him and Crowe as March and Healy, it is comforting to know that we will always have this one, and that anyone who seeks it out will be rewarded with one of the most underrated American films of the late 2010s.