By this moment in time, the 70s pastiche has become a genre in itself. In fact, we’re arguably in a second phase in which 70s pastiche films are directly influenced by and quoting from an earlier wave of 70s pastiche films rather than aiming to recreate the atmosphere and historical immediacy of the decade in any real way. In that sense, the 70s pastiche genre is perhaps not all that different from the exercises in 40s and 50s pastiche that became so prominent during the 70s, while this second phase of 70s pastiche stands in much the same relation to the first wave as the flourishing of erotic thrillers in the early 90s did to this first great wave of neo-noir pastiches in the late 70s and early 80s. All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that we seem to be faced with a new generation of 70s pastiche that seems more willing to embrace fantasy and to luxuriate in a palpably unreal version of the decade, a tendency that’s particularly evident in Shane Black’s latest film, The Nice Guys, which utterly sheds any residual historical realism or authenticity to present late 70s Los Angeles as a single, city-wide happening. Poised somewhere between a theme part and a party, it may not be particularly true to the actual lived experience of the city but it feels almost slavishly true to the fantasies of the decade – and the city – as if Beyond the Valley of the Dolls had somehow morphed into a twenty-first century buddy film.
Because this is Shane Black, that cityscape is elaborated by way of a crime procedural that sees two private investigators – a novice, played by Ryan Gosling, and an old hat, played by Russell Crowe – joining forces to investigate the disappearance of the daughter of the District Attorney – played by Kim Basinger – after she strays from the beaten path to make a name for herself in the adult entertainment industry. From the very first scene, which features a porn star plunging to her death in a canyon car crash only to somehow land in a blood-smeared centrefold posture, to the very last scene, in which Gosling and Crow joke about banging Wonder Woman, the film is suffused with the kind of pointed and pervasive misogyny that characterised 80s buddy films as a whole. In many ways, it feels as if hating women is one of the few things that this odd couple have in common, even if they are not permitted to speak about it too often for fear of Gosling’s feisty daughter, played by Brendan Gleason in a show-stealing performance, calling them out on their prejudice. While that kind of sustained sexism was par for the course in this brand of 80s police procedural, there’s something a bit jarring about seeing it transplanted to the present day, especially because of how punitively it reduces Kim Basinger to a haggard and torrid echo of her role in L.A. Confidential. Here, she not only plays the District Attorney but an avid feminist who goes “too far” in her attempts to prevent her daughter entering the adult entertainment industry, creating a kind of weird narrative logic in which the porn is framed as lurid and exploitative but any kind of genuinely systemic critique of it is presented as just as monstrous, if not even more so, positioning Crowe and Russell as a kind of fatherly buttress against both exploitation and feminism that becomes more unwholesome and unsettling as the film proceeds.
At the same time, however, that provisional acceptance of the adult entertainment industry – “totally fine, so long as it’s not my daughter”– also serves to loosen and elasticise the boundaries between mainstream and adult cinema more generally, not simply because of the Pynchonesque ways in which the narrative crisscrosses between reputable and disreputable industry figures, but because of the way in which Black’s visual style and panache works to evoke a world in which cinema largely contained porn, and the most cutting-edge porn experiences were cinematic in nature. To some extent, that tendency informs the film’s fascination with porn actresses, strippers and prostitutes, who always seem to be hanging around the fringes of every scene. However, that’s simply part of a more dispersed and ambient attention to the erotic and pornographic potential of the film stock itself, as well as the unique capacity of analog film stock, in particular, to both evoke and invoke the visceral proximity of bodies, just because it is itself an embodied and manually processed medium in ways that are alien to digital technology. Of course, the film itself is shot on a digital camera, but Black nevertheless aims for an analog effect, or an anti-alienation effect, that continually makes you feel as if the proximity of other bodies and people in the cinema somehow renders you complicit in the extravagant and lascivious configurations of people on the screen itself. More than any film I have seen recently, The Nice Guys exudes the kind of warm, erotic ambience that benefits from being watched in a full cinema, and it’s no surprise that some of the film’s most elaborate and erotic tableaux involve Crowe and Gosling watching quasi-cinematic spectacles unfold in front of them, only to comically realise that their entire bodies have become complicit in what they initially thought was a purely optical experience.
That’s not to say, however, that the film is sexually explicit, since what is so powerful about this dispersed eroticism – indeed, what makes it eroticism – is that it tends to operate even or especially in situations that are not discernibly sexual, or are not yet sexual. In that sense, the film is uniquely attuned to the peculiar promiscuity and eroticism of large groups of people, as well as spaces designed to facilitate large groups of people, which is, again, what gives it all the weird distributed promiscuity of a happening or group performance event, as well as what makes even the most local and functional relationships – most obviously that between Gosling and Crowe themselves – so erotically and dynamically charged. As a result, gatherings of bodies simply seem to bring spaces into existence around them, most notably in two key scenes that draw on the modernist and postmodern architecture of Los Angeles, respectively, to choreograph enormous collections of people around Crowe and Gosling’s passages. In both of these extended sequences, once of which takes place in a home in the Canyons and one of which takes place in a Bonaventuresque hotel in the valley, there is a sense in which physical space has been reinvested with an enormous vitality and exuberance that is largely missing from our modern urban environments, in which space bears less and less erotic trace of our bodies as more and more of their impulses are redirected and contained by digital technology. While these two sequences may form the most bravura moments in the film, a near-continual sequence of establishing shots – usually in and around surface streets and highways – works to situate the film within the same warm, caressing and promiscuous sense of space, and it’s noticeable that for all the aerial perspectives the film is almost entirely devoid of the drone cinematography that has become such a hallmark of recent post-cinematic depictions and devolutions of the original cinematic substrate and infrastructure of Los Angeles.
Of course, The Nice Guys is a buddy film first and a historical recreation second, but what makes the rapport between Gosling and Crowe so great in the first place is the way in which this promiscuous sense of space blurs and fuzzes the boundaries between them, producing a low-key, washed-out kind of dynamic that utterly precludes the aggressively “eccentric” kinds of charismatic individualism characteristic of Black’s recent work with Marvel. In part, that comes down to Crowe, who is the fuzzy actor par excellence, and whose ability to just stay put and chew scenery couldn’t be more distinct from the way in which Gosling tends to turn even the most incidental or casual moments into a kind of posture. Yet that very contrast is part of what makes the comedy work well here, as Crowe absorbs every heroic or contemplative or even fatherly pose that Gosling into his own brand of low-key, low-energy ambience. And it is in this sense that The Nice Guys feels genuinely revisionist, since where the 80s buddy films it quotes often felt compelled to compensate for that fuzzy erotic proximity with the kinds of abrasive and aggressive communion to be found in 48 Hrs. or even Black’s Lethal Weapon franchise, here the combativeness is almost immediately subsumed into this cosy, familial proximity, creating a kind of studied bathos and sense of pervasive cross-purposes that almost approaches screwball or sitcom registers at moments. Certainly, Crowe’s comic delivery has never been better – or more effortless in its precision – with the film often feeling like his definitive movement into a paunchy, late career person characterised by the kinds of avowedly and unashamedly genre roles that have also tended to constellate around Mel Gibson in the latest part of his acting life.
For all those reasons, and for all Black’s hip credentials, the film feels less anxious to insist upon itself as a high concept recreation that nearly any other 70s or 80s pastiche released in the last half decade. At times, it almost plays as a parodic riff on Drive, with Crowe’s sheer screen presence seeming to take the edges off the auteurist screen persona that Gosling has seemed to carry around with him since the beginning of his career. It’s a shame then, that the script treats Basinger in such a peremptory fashion, as well as a cruel irony given her comments about the difficulty of finding roles as an older woman in Hollywood: far from remedying that situation, the screen time she’s given here seems to affirm it as the natural order of things. Sometimes the full violence of misogyny only comes through when it’s as casual and relaxed and unassuming as it is here, especially towards the end, with the narrative machinations coming dangerously close to a paranoid conspiracy theory that women hold the reins of power somewhere distantly behind the scenes. To some extent it’s impossible to extricate that attitude from the rest of the film and yet it’s also what gives the film its unique warmth and ambience (although not the only way that ambience might have been achieved). As DVDs go the way of videos and rewatchability becomes more and more attached to ephemeral online media, I often find myself wondering whether films are specifically made to be endlessly rewatched anymore, or whether they’re designed more to have the kind of one-off appeal that allows them to slot into an increasingly competitive and multifarious media cycle. Certainly, there are exceptions, most notably the MCE, but for the most part there is something charmingly outdated about the kinds of retrospective pleasure afforded by a film like The Nice Guys, which seems to get even warmer and cosier in retrospect, insinuating you into rewatching it before the final credits even roll.