The Nice Guys

Recently I saw a hugely entertaining documentary called The Bandit, about the making of Smokey and the Bandit. With much of its footage from 1976 and 1977, it practically reeks of the '70s, all stale cigarettes and Aqua Velva. It's a perfect depiction of what people looked like back then, how they spoke, what they wore, and where they lived.

Even aside from The Bandit, I've become a stickler for detail in period pictures that take place in the 1970s and 1980s, as I remember those decades vividly. And you know what? Despite the plethora of 21st century films set during those bygone eras – I suspect it's a way for screenwriters to avoid dealing with mobile phones and the Internet, which complicate traditional plots – they rarely get the details right. The hair is never right. The clothes are never right. The music's never right. And so it goes with Shane Black's The Nice Guys, set in 1977 Los Angeles.

Ryan Gosling plays a Rockford Files-inspired private eye who spends more time getting beaten up than he does solving cases. Russell Crowe does most of the beating, playing a thug for hire who teams up with Gosling to look for a missing teenager. Buddy movie hijinks ensue.

There are some mild laughs, one exciting chase sequence, and a couple of surprise plot twists. But on the whole, The Nice Guys is lazily put together. Aside from the CGI smog inserted into the LA landscape – a nice touch, and actually integral to the plot – this doesn't look much like the California of my childhood. Probably because the film was mostly shot in Atlanta, Georgia. (Yes, we've reached a point where Hollywood pictures that actually take place in Los Angeles are being filmed 2,000 miles away.) Also, Gosling's and Crowe's hair and wardrobe are distracting: they look like '90s hipsters, not '70s schmoes. And the soundtrack would have you believe that middle-aged white people in 1977 were listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and not Barry Manilow.

Even the plot, convoluted as it is, leaves several holes unfilled. Character motivation is sometimes arbitrary. Several subplots appear out of thin air, then go nowhere. And even its wan attempt to add a Chinatown-like element, tying a series of murders in the porn world to corruption in the US auto industry, doesn't feel relevant: by 1977, automakers were already losing the battle against unleaded gas, and today the power of the "Big Three" (Ford, GM, Chrysler) has greatly diminished, thanks to competition from Asia, Europe, and even at home. Black could have written something smart and real about the car industry circa 1977. He didn't.

Here's what really sums up my frustration with The Good Guys and its "who cares?" attitude: in the movie, Gosling's character has a 13-year-old daughter named Molly (Angourie Rice, merely acceptable). She's smart and plucky but looks more or less like an average California teen in the late 1970s. There's a scene in her bedroom, however, in which we can plainly see the posters on her wall. Are they of Shaun Cassidy, the Bay City Rollers, and Leif Garrett? No. They are of Blondie, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols! In 1977, only the edgiest of LA hipsters would have been fans. Certainly not a quirky blonde tween like Molly. It's as though Shane Black mumbled to production designer Richard Bridgland, "Yeah, um, Molly's kind of a cool kid," then Bridgland mumbled to set decorator Danielle Berman, "I guess she's supposed to be cool?" then Berman figured, "Okay, a cool 13-year-old in 1977 would have been into punk, right?" Not right.

Anyway, despite its thousands of rounds of gunfire and its casually gruesome deaths, The Nice Guys is basically harmless. Obviously I don't think it's anything special, but you might like it all right. Enjoy it at home with a cocktail or two. But first watch The Bandit. It's a hell of a lot more fun.