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When We Were Young: ‘The Nice Guys’ and Nostalgia’s Limitations

RInger illustration
RInger illustration

The first nice guy we meet in The Nice Guys isn’t played by Ryan Gosling or Russell Crowe. Rather, it’s a kid who opens the movie by sneaking out of his bedroom to look at porn. This isn’t the nice part, by the way — that comes later, after a car tumbles off a cliff into the kid’s living room. The driver, a very beautiful, very naked, very injured brunette, says, “How do you like my car, big boy?” and immediately dies. The kicker: she’s Misty Mountains, the porn star splayed across the stickiest pages of the kid’s nudie magazines. He knows this woman, sorta, which might explain why he stops just a half-second to get a pretty good look at her naked, dead body before getting help. To his credit, when he snaps to, his first act is to cover her up. Like a gentleman.

Grade: vaguely nice.

Also pretty nice: a teenage girl who accepts rides home from a talkative older creep and suffers his flirtation in exchange for getting to smoke his fantastic weed. Points for relatability and personal sacrifice. Even nicer: the 13-ish boy who tries to impress a porn producer by showing off his junk (don’t worry, doesn’t happen) because, he says, “I got a big dick.” Points for sharing — and for injecting some humorous nonsense into this relatively lifeless movie.

The Nice Guys is ostensibly a movie about two down-and-out private investigators, played by Crowe and Gosling, who get tangled up in a conspiracy involving porn, filicide, the Detroit auto industry, dead birds, and the Department of Justice. It’s That ’70s Movie. But what’s memorable about it isn’t the usual bells and whistles, the staches, the perfectly rounded Afro wigs, the pool-party waifs dressed like mermaids, or any of its half-committed nods to L.A. noir. We’re far too far into Hollywood’s ’70s revival for the elements of style — sets, costumes, winking music choices — to be a point of distinction.

No, what’s memorable about The Nice Guys is the crew of not-so-nice kids: the 12- through 18-year-olds who, even by the sexual revolution’s standards, seem remarkably #unbothered when bumping heads with coke-addled pornographers. The movie is set in 1977, when its director and co-writer Shane Black might, at 16, have been one such precocious kid. At least it’s fun to think of him that way, along with other recent nostalgics like David O. Russell and J.J. Abrams. They’ve all made films which sometimes felt too attached — in ambition and style, if not content — to the Hollywood era of their childhoods. It’s gotten stale. The Nice Guys is a lesser movie than either of those men has made — than even Shane Black has made — but it at least playfully raises the possibility that the year of Close Encounters of the Third Kind might also have been fit for a Kids prequel.

Picture that: picture The Nice Guys without adults. Same premise, same crimes, but with the dirty-minded, precocious teens and pre-teens stuck on the margins of the current movie moved front and center, fated to think they know it all and to realize, sometimes fatally, that they don’t. That’s what happens anyway — on the bench. It’s not a better or more responsible nostalgic fantasy, but of what’s here, it’s the better story. Can’t we make it the story?

This piece originally appeared in the May 25, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.