The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

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Spoofs—or parodies, take-offs, sendups, whatever you want to call them—have got to be some of the most inherently appealing movies out there. It’s a rare viewer who truly dislikes the Mel Brooks and Monty Python classics, and even the lesser entries are much easier to enjoy than mediocre movies of other kinds. Even a parody that’s actively bad, like the Family Guy Star Wars spoof Blue Harvest, can often pull off a memorably inspired moment (that one involves the cantina band, and it’s hilarious). Humor will always have a certain hard-wired appeal, and I think we’re especially drawn to parody because it finds an entertaining way to keep genre film honest, calling out clichés, hackneyed elements, and all the other bits of artistic laziness that test the patience of even the most devoted cinema lovers. The irony is that more often than not, movie spoofs can fall prey to the same tendencies. And to an extent, I get it; comedically, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to go for, and even the silliest movies are still crowded, frightfully expensive enterprises. Originality and creativity are financially risky, and, in such a collaborative art form, difficult to achieve even under favorable circumstances. So it feels like a rare and special gift when a spoof is not just funny and incisive, but a great movie in its own right, managing to work on some of the same terms as the movies it’s making fun of. (The Princess Bride, for example, is ridiculous, but often as genuinely affecting as the stories it pokes fun at. And is there anyone on Earth who doesn’t like The Princess Bride?) This is the sublime state of parody that we find in Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, a modestly scaled but enormously clever movie from 2011[i] that’s equal parts love letter to and trenchant critique of the slasher/horror genre.

It’s a confident directorial debut for Goddard, who had spent the 2000s writing for TV and movies with a similar focus on science fiction and the supernatural, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Alias, and Lost to Cloverfield in 2008. But while Goddard certainly does the heavy lifting in bringing the story to the screen, The Cabin in the Woods is best understood as a team effort from him and Joss Whedon, his co-writer and longtime creative kinsman. From Buffy to Firefly, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Serenity and the first two Avengers installments, Whedon has had one of the more influential TV and film careers of the 21st century, with a distinctive ability to infuse effective sci-fi action and suspense with a witty, knowing sense of humor.

The Cabin in the Woods is a classic expression of this aesthetic sensibility that Whedon and Goddard share. They’re not content to simply lampoon horror tropes through ridiculous exaggeration; they also add the novel element of a secret government agency managing the whole slasher experience—a comedic conceit that proves surprisingly durable, consistently delivering laughs while avoiding the cheap and easy silliness of the Scary Movie franchise, for example. Some critics complain, not unreasonably, that this prevents the movie from managing the artistic coup of being truly unsettling even as it spoofs the genre, but most also recognize that this probably wasn’t the filmmakers’ intention. Dana Stevens describes it best as a “horror-inflected black comedy…a playful riff on the ‘last girl’ slasher movie, in which a group of young people in isolation are hunted down one by one by a murderous, often supernatural entity who tends to save the pretty virgin for last.”[ii]

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Whedon and Goddard know their stuff, and they manage to squeeze a prodigious amount of comic twists and in-jokes into the movie’s lean 90-minute runtime. But the great thing about The Cabin in the Woods is that you don’t need to be a horror connoisseur to enjoy it as a parody. I’m not particularly well versed in horror, and definitely not in slasher movies—there are probably dozens of jokes and references that went right over my head. But simply through general cultural osmosis, even the most casual moviegoer has absorbed enough to recognize the genre conventions that are being made fun of here. Of course our characters will be naïve undergraduates who fit into easily recognizable archetypes, all played by actors who are clearly several years older. Of course they’ll breeze past a bunch of glaringly obvious signs that something is amiss with their weekend getaway in the woods, including the requisite run-in with a menacing local. A game of truth or dare will lead them down into a dark cellar filled with spooky old artifacts. There will be a lot of gratuitous, teasing jump-scares before the horror begins, and the camera will ogle attractive young bodies of both sexes before they start getting dismembered. At which point they’ll either be killed with gory certainty, or else continue to function pretty much normally after what ought to be seriously debilitating injuries. And so on and so forth.

Broadly, then, everything goes the way we expect it to in a slasher movie. The parallel plotline with Sitterson, Hadley and their army of worker bees is the comedic key to the whole enterprise—and while the critics are right that it dampens the potential for true horror, it’s important that this element is there from the beginning. The central joke that keeps on giving is that it’s not just the supernatural stuff; everything about this sequence of events is so far-fetched that it takes a secret government effort on the scale of NORAD to make it happen the ‘right’ way. All sorts of elaborate systems are in place to prevent our characters from leaving the area. They must be dosed with advanced chemical cocktails to make the blatantly counterintuitive decisions that keep the story on track. Cleverest of all is the way their personalities have to be altered to fit the requisite tired stereotypes. It would have been easy to give this part of the premise more expository attention than it really needs, but Goddard and Whedon convey it efficiently, with brief, early glimpses of the characters’ more realistic selves and a few dialogue references to the covert actions the agency has taken beforehand to nudge them into their assigned roles. And of course, the one person it doesn’t work on is the perpetually high Marty, who has reached such great heights of stoner-dom as to be effectively immune to any chemical tampering with his stash.

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Only once this all becomes clear can we fully appreciate—largely in retrospect—what solid work the actors are doing. These aren’t the sort of roles that will win anybody an Oscar, but the task set out for our five principals is more nuanced than it might seem: they have to sell the jokes and parody elements, yet remain convincing as students who’ve been manipulated into the typical personalities of a slasher movie—the horrors of which are very real for them. That’s a tricky balance to strike, but everyone is fully dialed in. Before she gets a few of the better laugh lines towards the end, Kristen Connolly sells Dana’s standard arc of the ‘good girl’ turned hardened survivor, and does an unironically good job with the terrified screams that no slasher flick would be complete without. As Jules, Anna Hutchison has a few good ones as well, and manages to embody the stereotypical loose party girl, but slightly awkwardly, so Marty’s speculation that something weird is going on with her doesn’t seem totally unfounded. The same goes for Chris Hemsworth,[iii] who definitively portrays Curt as a jock, but also hints at a more thoughtful side before subtly regressing to the standard meathead—and, eventually, the doomed avenger of his dead girlfriend. (His speech before jumping his dirk bike across the gorge is even kind of rousing, though of course we’re laughing at the same time, aware of the forcefield he’s about to crash into.) Holden is the archetypal sensitive hunk from the start, but Jesse Williams does a good job of maintaining his scholarly manner even as he’s steered into the illogical decisions that the story demands. The all-star, however, would have to be Fran Kranz as Marty, which must have been one of the most fun roles he’s ever had. As the paranoid stoner who turns out to be on to something, he’s arguably the key to the movie’s success as a spoof, and thus gets a lot of the cleverest lines as he becomes increasingly clued into the absurdity of what’s going on. But he also gets a lot of laughs simply by being a goofy pothead, and has the comic chops to make a line funny mostly through delivery, like when he looks down at a pile of zombie body parts and reflects, “Yeah, I had to dismember that guy with a trowel…” I didn’t see the twist coming on a first viewing, but in retrospect, it seems only natural for Goddard and Whedon bring Marty back into the story for the final act.

And we haven’t even mentioned Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, perfectly cast as the secret agency controllers Sitterson and Hadley. Exposition of the oddball premise falls largely to them, and they do a good job of bringing out the humor inherent in those lines, but they’re also able to make the underground-bunker storyline hilarious on more than just a conceptual level. They and their colleagues could have been hard-driving covert operatives, like those CIA officers who are always trying to track Jason Bourne from high-tech control rooms, and that still would’ve been pretty funny. But Goddard and Whedon know this premise and these characters have greater potential, and Jenkins and Whitford—along with Amy Acker, Brian White, and the many bit players who round out the team—are fully in tune with their vision. Everything about them, from their bland shirts and ties reminiscent of old NASA control rooms to their combination of swaggering nonchalance and ‘same shit, different day’ insouciance, helps to portray the job as just another nine-to-five grind, full of the same inane politics, lame diversions and awkward camaraderie that one finds in any office. It’s a much more comedically nimble conception of the enterprise; a simple cut from a gruesome killing back to Whitford’s dazed, jaded expression is good for a laugh.

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As always, such fun performances wouldn’t be possible without solid material to work from. As silly as it often is, Goddard and Whedon’s script is also impressively concise, demonstrating a keen understanding of comedic technique as well as the horror genre it’s making fun of. There’s very little in there that’s not a joke, or setting up a joke, or contributing in some way to the world-building of the movie’s spoofy premise. Meanwhile, comic elements build on each other in refreshing ways. So clever bits of parody, moments that might elicit a knowing chuckle, sometimes double as setup for inspired comic flourishes only indirectly related to horror tropes. The ‘Harbinger,’ Mordecai, is mildly amusing when the protagonists encounter him at the gas station, but then he calls the secret headquarters and turns out to be hilariously insecure, callously taunted by colleagues who think he’s a weirdo and self-conscious about who’s listening to his overly portentous prophesizing. A clever bit about similar agencies and sacrificial efforts all over the world—of course the Japanese team has a perfect record, and of course their scenario has a ghost terrorizing a classroom of nine-year-olds—sets up the comically sublime sight of Richard Jenkins yelling “Fuck you!” at the adorable schoolgirls celebrating their victory over evil. Even the very first thing we learn about Dana—her recently, rudely terminated affair with a professor—ends up informing one of the movie’s last (and funniest) one-liners. Goddard and Whedon also have the chops to create plenty of moments of simple, straightforward comedy, be it the bland workplace banter straight out of The Office or Office Space, Marty’s retractable bong/thermos, or my personal favorite: a shot that lingers on a disembodied hand slowly finger-walking up to a dead man’s face.

Still, even in the midst of so much overt humor, the filmmakers don’t lose sight of the fact that for significant stretches, we’re going through a slasher movie with these characters. The premise may, as we’ve said, prevent the movie from becoming truly unsettling, but the traditional horror sequences sometimes work on the most basic level, and they also function as an implicit critique of the genre, highlighting how it so often falls back on heavy-handed foreboding, easy jump scares, and cheap cruelty rather than attempt the much harder task of creating genuine, deep-seated dread and suspense. And once Dana and Marty find their way into the underground bunker, the central conceit allows for a fun twist on the standard final killing rampage, managing to remain hilarious while far surpassing the body count of even the most vicious slasher film. (“You want blood and violence?” the movie seems to say. “Fine, here’s every movie monster ever, and dozens of expendable employees for them to dismember.”) And how fitting that the big, tables-turning moment that kicks it all off isn’t the yell of a character finally pushed to bloodlust, or the gory impact of weapon on flesh, but perhaps the most satisfying ‘ding!’ of elevator doors in movie history—followed by gory impacts and fountains of blood, naturally.

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This all-out splatter-fest is an explicit illustration of just how broad Goddard and Whedon intend their critique to be. The central conceit makes for great parody as far as this specific story goes, but the brilliant thing about it is that you can think back on practically every horror movie through this lens; the controllers even mention that humanity has been doing this sort of thing as long as we’ve been around, trying to appease these all-powerful gods.

And the premise pays dividends right up to the final minutes. It’s always hard to satisfactorily end a horror movie, even a spoof, but what the filmmakers come up with is, in its own way, kind of perfect. Dana and Marty fight their way to the heart of the matter, finding that their ordeal wasn’t exactly the supernatural horror show they thought it was—only to learn that behind that, there are supernatural forces far beyond the ones that just subjected them to the plot of a slasher movie. What can you really do then, but light up a joint and share some stoned musings about it all before the end of the world? Our protagonists still die in the end, but this time they get to take the rest of the world (including all of us watching in the theater) with them.

This may not be the sort of movie that changes lives or gets analyzed in film theory courses. But in its modest goals of making us laugh, squirm, and think critically about horror cinema, it’s a resounding success. As Ian Buckwalter writes, “Goddard and Whedon have created a wonderful puzzle of a film that is loving in its appreciation of good horror, even as it takes the genre (and its blood-lusty audience) to task for the unimaginative banality that has been too typical of recent scary movies.”[iv] We can give you pretty young people suffering and dying, they say—look, it’s not even difficult. But if that’s all you want, then you’ve basically got the same artistic taste as a bunch of capricious, bloodthirsty ancient-deity assholes.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] Well, sort of; the movie has a convoluted backstory that makes dating it rather complicated. Filmed back in 2009, it was set to be released by MGM in 2010, until the company inconveniently went bankrupt. The movie hung in limbo until Lionsgate bought it in 2011, and finally released it in 2012. IMDb lists the date as 2011, perhaps figuring that it’s the most representative approximation.

[ii] http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2012/04/cabin_in_the_woods_reviewed_with_no_spoilers_.html

[iii] The above-mentioned delay in the movie’s release makes it a mildly interesting entry in Hemsworth’s filmography. Between initial production in 2009 and the premiere in 2012, his debut as Thor in the Marvel universe catapulted him up to the A-list. So although he was an established star when The Cabin in the Woods came out, getting the role probably felt like a significant step for his career at the time.

[iv] https://www.npr.org/2012/04/12/150299147/cabin-in-the-woods-a-dead-serious-genre-exorcism

The Nice Guys (2016)

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In the past few months, we’ve discussed (at length!) some pretty heady and heavy stuff—deeply nuanced, important films with penetrating insights about the human condition. So this month, I wanted to take a bit of a break, and take look at a straightforwardly enjoyable, recent movie that may have slipped beneath many people’s radar. As you’ll know if you’ve seen it, The Nice Guys is not a capital-G Great movie. It doesn’t have stunning stylistic masterstrokes, brilliant performances that shake you to the emotional core, or anything especially profound to say about the world. It’s just fun, well made, and appealingly retro—as Justin Chang writes, “a cheerfully aimless plunge into the scuzzy noir soul of 1970s Los Angeles.”[i] It’s also a loving homage to the ‘buddy cop’ subgenre that thrived in that flashy, rather ridiculous decade: set in the same time period and featuring the same sorts of sleazy locales and characters, while also managing to be, in some ways, better and more interesting than many of those movies it’s paying homage to.

Right from the get-go, it’s clear what kind of movie this is going to be. We open drifting over a Southern California nightscape of yesteryear—wrecked Hollywood sign, darkened hills and glistening urban sprawl—with a soundtrack of smoothly twanging guitars and bass. Our title, The Nice Guys, appears in the rounded, triple-bar font particular to the era, and as we zoom in on one of the houses in the hills, a subtitle informs us, almost unnecessarily, that we’re in Los Angeles, 1977. And man, are we ever in Los Angeles, 1977. In the house, a meandering glass box full of sickly color tones, a shaggy-haired boy swipes a porn magazine from beneath his parents’ bed. As he admires a full-page spread of an actress named Misty Mountains, a car careens off the road behind him, bounces down the hillside, and crashes spectacularly through the house. It’s a slapstick sort of moment, but the immediate aftermath doesn’t play for laughs: the kid hurries down to the wreck, only to find the selfsame actress, Misty Mountains, bloodied, topless and splayed out on a rock in a queasy echo of the magazine photo. She speaks some enigmatic dying words, and in a tender moment, the shaken kid pulls off his shirt and covers her exposed chest. It’s a solid setup for a noir-ish mystery, and one that succinctly captures what the movie is all about: cars and porn, defining features of the setting that will figure prominently in the plot; pitch-black comedy that’s effective in both traditional and unconventional ways; and a distinctive portrayal of violence that’s entertaining, but also more self-aware and, in its own way, more honest than we normally see onscreen.

At this point, it might help to know a bit about the artist behind all this, the director and co-writer of The Nice Guys: an interesting, offbeat, cleverly irreverent dude named Shane Black. He’s had an unusual career, floating between the periphery and the center of mainstream American cinema for the past thirty years, and even if you don’t know the name, chances are you’re more familiar with Black’s work than you realize. He first rose to prominence in 1987 as the writer of Lethal Weapon, the hit action-comedy that begat a hugely successful franchise. (He co-wrote Lethal Weapon 2 as well, but left the series when the studio demanded significant changes, ending up with only a story credit.) An occasional actor, he also had his most substantial onscreen role around this time—as the bespectacled, most quickly expendable member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s squad in the original, so-bad-it’s-kind-of-awesome Predator. He went on to write The Last Boy Scout (1991), Last Action Hero (1993), and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), all of which, however they’ve come to be judged since, flopped hard enough at the time to remove him from Hollywood’s good graces. But he found his way back in 2005, directing his own script for the fist time with the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and joined the endless Marvel extravaganza with Iron Man 3 in 2013. The subject matter is varied, but there are common elements running through Black’s best work: clever subversions of genre tropes; colorful characters spouting rich, witty dialogue; and (superhero trappings of Iron Man 3 notwithstanding) the kind of seedy settings that often attract such people.

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Which leads us to 2016 and The Nice Guys, a movie that leans heavily into these defining elements of Black’s aesthetic, especially the inspiration he takes from classic film noir. The same can also be said of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, another zany, infectiously entertaining quasi-detective story. I’m writing about The Nice Guys because I think it’s slightly more accessible, while still being, as Mike Ryan writes, “probably the Shane Black-est of all the Shane Black movies.”[ii] I think it makes a good introduction to Black for those not familiar with his work—it did for me, anyway.

In typical noir fashion, that cryptic opening scene is our gateway into a mystery of sorts, involving anti-pollution activists, quirky mobsters, imposing government officials, and shady pornographers. Apparently the major car companies are trying to suppress new technology that would reduce emissions, everyone connected to a mysterious film is dying, no one is on the side we think they are… it’s hard to keep track of, but even that is, in a way, faithful to Black’s film-noir inspirations. After watching Chinatown, do we remember every detail of the conspiracy that Jack Nicholson uncovers? Probably not—I certainly don’t—but the fundamentals stick with you: large-scale corruption, and the twisted family dynamics at the heart of it. Same deal here; we get the general idea. The big corporations are getting away with some harmful shenanigans, the powers that be may be in on it, and everyone’s looking for a missing young woman who knows the truth. Black has fun building his elaborate tangle of twists, turns and double-crosses, but crucially, The Nice Guys doesn’t subscribe to the brutally bleak worldview that defines many classics like Chinatown. Because Black isn’t just making a noir mystery; he’s also making a comedy, and the convoluted plot plays into that, with many of the twists more likely to provoke an amused chuckle than a shocked gasp. Not to mention the fact that it often veers into the ridiculous; this is a mystery in which a major revelation is a scheme to hide damning evidence inside an ‘experimental’ art film—which the makers have to keep insisting is not a porno.

In any case, the details of the plot don’t matter that much in the end. The Nice Guys is a mystery and a comedy, but more than anything else, it’s a so-called ‘buddy cop’ story. And as is often the case in these movies, be they serious thrillers or comedies like this one, the main pleasure lies not so much in solving the mystery as in spending time with the colorful personalities who accompany us on the journey. And Black nails this aspect of it; no character is entirely original, but they’re all engaging and, for the most part, fun to be around despite the litany of violence, stupidity, and general recklessness on display.

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The most important characters, obviously, are our two protagonists, the mismatched investigators whom fate brings together to solve the mystery. As in many buddy cop comedies, neither is an actual cop, and both are pretty miserable—one drifting numbly through life and one in the process of spectacularly flaming out. The straight man of the duo, to the extent that we have one, is Jackson Healy, an impassive local tough guy who will beat up anybody for the right price. He’s good at it, capable of deft bits of violent athleticism when he needs to be, but every other aspect of his life is in shambles. Still reeling from a romantic betrayal so outrageous that it slides into hilarity, he now lives with a few pet fish in a dingy bachelor pad, going aimlessly through the motions of day-to-day life, resigned to the fact that there’s no real way to be a good person using his particular skill set. He makes a good foil for Holland March, a small-time private investigator who’s been a bumbling, booze-addled mess since his wife died, and wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed to begin with (though he’d be the last to recognize that). March does show occasional flashes of real acuity, but they’re few and far between; we get the sense that he could probably be a decent investigator if only he could pull himself together, making his teenage daughter’s frustration all the more relatable.

It’s a familiar sort of pairing for a buddy cop movie, in more ways than one: we have the jaded, highly competent veteran with a lonely home life, awkwardly matched with an overconfident younger partner; and we also have two guys whom most of polite society would view as scumbags, teaming up to try and do the right thing. But Black is a skilled enough storyteller to know that solid, efficient characterization can more than make up for a lack of originality. He got to this point as a writer first and foremost, and he and his co-writer, Anthony Bagarozzi, have a knack for finding simple phrases and scenes that concisely tell us a great deal about a character. When we first meet Healy, he tells us, “I was in love once. Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate,” and we see him interrupt a scared young woman’s expressions of gratitude to inform her that she’s seven dollars short on her payment. Meanwhile, our first glimpse of March finds him in a bathtub… still wearing a full suit. He stumbles out of it too late to answer a phone call, finds a message written on his hand (‘You will never be happy’), and muses in voice-over: “I wish I wished for things, man.” So within a few minutes of meeting both these guys, we already have a basic sense of what they’re about. A few scenes further along, we’ve seen the lonely tedium of Healy’s daily routine, witnessed March’s lack of scruples about bilking clueless clients, learned the relevant bits of their respective back-stories. It all feels like standard, easygoing setup, but a lesser filmmaker would have needed a lot more time to give us this basic sense of the misery and ennui defining these characters. Black ensures that before the first twenty-odd minutes are up, we have a pretty clear understanding of who our protagonists are and how they came to be such screw-ups—setting us up to get the most out of the interplay between them and their exploits in the caper to follow.

A not-insignificant part of the protagonists’ appeal also has to do with the actors portraying them. Both are well-known stars, but mostly for more serious roles; they aren’t necessarily the first ones you’d think of as comic leads, and there’s a nice undercurrent of novelty in watching them venture a bit outside their normal wheelhouses. The role of Healy is only mildly against type for Russell Crowe; at this point in his long career, he’s played plenty of characters with a comic side to them in movies that wouldn’t classify as comedies—and Healy, with his existential melancholy, levelheaded competence and generally deadpan delivery, isn’t too different from them. Still, Crowe delivers those laugh lines like a pro, and when called upon, he displays a sharp sense of comic timing that I didn’t know he had.[iii]

As March, Ryan Gosling is more of a revelation; the character is inherently amusing, and there’s added fun in seeing him played by someone we know mostly from such wildly different roles. This is really the same guy we saw as a serious romantic lead—passionate heartthrob in The Notebook (2004), tragically self-destructive in Blue Valentine (2010)—or as a teacher barely keeping it together in Half Nelson (2006), or as the epitome of taciturn cool in Drive (2011) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017)? He’s been in more lighthearted movies (one was actually called La La Land) and even an all-out comedy: The Big Short in 2015—but that was a very different sort of movie, a satirical take on real events full of sharp, hyper-articulate characters. So it’s refreshing to see him play a character who’s kind of an idiot, who’s a train wreck at the outset and never really gets his act together, succeeding mostly through dumb luck. But it’s not just about novelty; Gosling turns out to be a genuinely adept physical comedian, most notably in a routine with a gun, a toilet stall door, and a strategically placed magazine, but also in the way he mines his character’s frequent drunkenness for laughs without ever quite overdoing it. He also has the rare ability to make a relatively normal line—one that doesn’t contain a clear joke—funny simply through inflection, as when he snaps at a cocky kid on a bike, “Nobody wants to see your dick, dude!” (In fact, one of the lines that made me laugh the hardest, for whatever reason, was just him drunkenly humming, “March, March, he’s our man; if he can’t do it, no one can!”)

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Moreover, as well as Crowe and Gosling hit their comedic marks, they’re also accomplished dramatic actors, able to make the most of the movie’s few moments of real sincerity and tenderness. When March hugs his daughter after she’s been in danger, Gosling makes it a touching reminder of the depth of his love for her, despite his myriad failings. And when Healy recalls the day he impulsively stopped a robbery, Crowe’s pitch-perfect delivery of the final line (“Just for a moment, I felt useful…”) is a poignant glimpse into the despondency at the heart of the character. These are fleeting moments, but important ones, encouraging us to care about these characters more than we typically might in a silly comedy like this.

This creative generosity extends to the minor characters as well; they aren’t as fully developed as the protagonists, but Black and Bagarozzi take care to make them more colorful and interesting than run-of-the-mill supporting players in the genres they’re riffing on. The clearest example is March’s daughter Holly, who seems on paper like a cliché. In a movie like this, a teenage daughter is usually a cheap and easy way to accomplish two things: a) to engender sympathy for an otherwise unlikable protagonist, or b) to embody innocence and goodness, helping us keep our moral bearings. But Holly is more three-dimensional than that: smart and resourceful, still dealing (in more mature fashion) with the same tragedy that’s sent her father spiraling, and eagerly inserting herself into his work until she becomes a sort of third partner in the investigation, steering March towards his better detective instincts and making a few valuable contributions of her own. It all works because of a winning performance by the young actress Angourie Rice, who captures these many facets of the character while still making Holly a recognizable 13-year-old—precocious but not unrealistically so. (In a rare instance of Hollywood authenticity, Rice was actually somewhat close to her character’s age at the time, making her performance all the more impressive.) Meanwhile, the character still fulfills those standard thematic functions, just not in a way that feels forced or unnatural. She does engender sympathy for the hapless March, but she also makes mistakes of her own, sometimes acting nearly as reckless as he does. She provides a moral check on our protagonists, but doesn’t come across as naive or preachy because she isn’t demanding sainthood, just basic decency: don’t break bones for money, don’t be shitfaced all the time, don’t profit off of senile old ladies, don’t kill people in cold blood, etc.

Even the lower-tier supporting players are more memorable than such characters typically are, the actors clearly enjoying the chance to bring some color to what would normally be filler roles. The missing young woman, Amelia, spends most of the movie off-screen as an elusive person of interest, but when we finally do meet her, Margaret Qualley gets to play more than a helpless damsel in distress. She’s afraid of the danger she’s in and correct about the conspiracy she’s trying to expose, but in a nice comic twist, she’s also pretty insufferable about it, self-righteous as only a rich kid in rebellion can be, at one point exclaiming to her rescuers, “God, have you been living under a rock?!” Keith David and Beau Knapp, playing your standard henchmen, get to swing from comically blundering to genuinely threatening and back again. Same for Yaya DaCosta as the executive assistant Tally, who goes from an innocent bureaucrat in over her head to a stone-cold killer completely at home in this amoral world. Even Matt Bomer, whose role as the dangerous John Boy consists mostly of fighting and shooting people, manages to convey some real menace in his character’s few lines. (The exception, oddly enough, is Kim Basinger, the most famous face in the cast after the two leads, who doesn’t get to be much more than a blandly corrupt government higher-up, her dialogue limited mostly to narrative exposition.)

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Still, it takes more than colorful characters to make a movie funny, and however you feel about the particular jokes and gags, it’s worth looking at Black’s approach to comedy, which is inventive and wide-ranging—a clever mix traditional elements and upended expectations. Over the course of the movie, we come across many classic comedy tropes. In a brief flashback, Crowe does one of the better spit takes I’ve ever seen. An invasion of his apartment is interrupted by a well-timed encounter with a booby-trapped bag, leaving one goon with a blue face for the rest of the movie. When Healy and March throw a dead body over a fence, it lands, predictably but still hilariously, in the middle of a dinner party. We’ve already mentioned Gosling’s bathroom stall routine; he also does an excellent, drawn-out double take upon discovering the corpse in the dark—which, in turn, leads into another good mini-routine, as he tries to scream while still too horrified to catch his breath. There are conventional jokes that wouldn’t be out of place in most comedies—“You know who else was just following orders? Hitler!”—and a few amusing, slightly meta side conversations, like when a smitten March refuses to accept that the gorgeous Tally is working with the bad guys (“You don’t know her upbringing!” he protests, as Healy gently tries to point out the obvious).

At the same time, though, Black gets just as much, if not more, comedic value from non-traditional gags—the blindsiding curveballs and the genre conventions cleverly turned on their heads. This is a defining element of Black’s aesthetic: his unique ability to create comedy in surprising ways, at unexpected moments. When Healy breaks March’s arm, an act of clinical cruelty turns comical with the high-pitched wail Gosling lets out in response. A fight breaks out at a party and an innocent bystander gets shot, but the guy turns out to be situated atop a ridiculous tree costume. When Amelia is explaining the big conspiracy, she melodramatically sighs and falls back on the bed, only to whack her head on the headboard. An early scene of March punching through a window to break into a bar plays at first as a demonstration of cool competence—until he slices his wrist and winds up in the hospital. Black even slips in a random, far-out hallucination, when March falls asleep at the wheel and finds himself talking to an enormous bee (voiced by the peerless comedian Hannibal Buress, of all people!) before crashing the car. It’s hilariously bizarre, and it serves a narrative purpose, revealing that Tally has given them a briefcase full of fake money. That last one, in particular, is classic Shane Black; he likes to arrive at important or predictable plot points, but in strange, roundabout ways that the even the characters seem somewhat bewildered by. It’s not too shocking for Healy and March to find a person of interest dead at a party, but they only do so because March takes a surprise drunken tumble off a balcony. In the shootout at March’s house, John Boy doesn’t manage to kill Amelia, only to have her flag him down as she tries to escape. When Tally is holding Healy and March at gunpoint, Holly attempts a classic surprise attack by throwing coffee on her, and it fails because the coffee is cold, then ends up working after all when Tally slips and knocks herself out.

Moments like these also exemplify another defining aspect of Black’s work: his distinctive portrayal of violence. Action, and the violence that comes with it, have been staples of cinema since the beginning, but even when they’re done well, there’s a certain flavor of realism that’s often missing. A fight or a shootout might be incredible, and yet a small part of us that might reasonably think: This is all too neat. All that kinetic mayhem, and somehow nobody runs into anything, nobody fumbles their gun, nobody trips or twists their ankle or stubs their toe. ‘Clean’ action like that, well put together, is a beautiful thing to behold—I’ll surely write in the future about movies that do exactly that—but it’s not the only way to make violence entertaining; a significant source of humor in The Nice Guys is the way the conventions of standard, graceful movie violence are tweaked and subverted. Black has a unique talent for this; who else would think to have Tally neutralized in such a bizarre way? Who else would have March try and toss a gun to Healy in the middle of a shootout and flub it, hurling the gun through a window instead? Who else would have Healy awkwardly whack his foot on a table after leaping athletically into the room?[iv]

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That’s not to say the action in The Nice Guys is realistic; what we see is still the stuff of a wild caper, taking place firmly in a fictional movie world. But it does feel more honest than most movie violence in the sense that it’s realistically messy and awkward, and that makes it distinctive in its impact. It’s funny, as we’ve seen, but I think Black is also trying to capture what real-life violence might feel like, especially for those of us who don’t encounter it much or at all—chaotic and arbitrary, a bizarre, inelegant rupture in normal life.

That’s a minor but relatively profound message in a silly comedy, and the ending demonstrates further that Black wants to leave us with a bit to think about. The conspiracy is exposed, a corrupt official goes to jail, and things are looking up for our protagonists. But all those people still died, the big corporate villains got off scot-free, and the broader antagonistic forces at work in the story keep on rolling with only the mildest of blows having been struck against them. They’re still rolling today; misogyny is still very much a thing, large-scale corruption still goes mostly unpunished, and as anyone who’s been to Los Angeles knows, that smog is definitely still a problem—with a whole lot more at stake these days than a few choking birds. When all is said and done, our heroes’ exploits didn’t make that much difference.

At least they had a good time doing it, and we had a good time watching.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] For the rest of this very good review: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-nice-guys-review-20160515-snap-story.html

[ii] Another fun and insightful review: https://uproxx.com/movies/the-nice-guys-review/

[iii] For an entertaining discussion of this and other comedic elements in the movie by Bill Burr and Joe DeRosa—actual comedians who really know what they’re talking about—check out this podcast clip (from about 1:42 onwards): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDvDa0smIMQ

[iv] This excellent video essay by Evan Puschak—whose ‘Nerdwriter’ channel is one of the best things on YouTube—goes into even more engrossing detail about Shane Black and his approach to movie violence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKiQs1dE0Tc