“Nice Guys Finish First”
This is my 150th post since I started writing regularly about films in current release, and it’s time to revisit my statement of purpose, a defense of learnedness as a framework for discussing the cinema. In applying Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) to The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006), my initial post argued for the need to create a middle-ground criticism, one using the methods of academic film studies but applied with a light touch in a timely manner to films while people were actually still talking about them.
In an anti-intellectual culture, most attempts to increase our understanding of the world will be met with resistances ranging from indifference to outright hostility. Precisely because of this, my methodological gestures are often met by claims that I am “reading too much into things,” when in fact the problem with our culture is that we don’t read nearly enough into things. My first prescription for improving our critical climate is to demand more criticism, with as many methodological filters as we can arrange. It is better to know than not to know, even if what we come to know is that another’s perspective should not be our own.
As they are wont to do, the creative folks at Pixar offer a useful representation of the critic. Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) is taken into an orgasmic state by the rat Remy’s reconstruction of the food critic’s favorite childhood meal in Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007). Later that night, retired to his writing room, Ego delivers in his review of Remy’s cooking a definition of criticism:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to judgment… But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new… In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
The creatives at Pixar hereby claim that the function of criticism is to celebrate the “new,” indeed a wonderful thing for criticism to do, using one’s learned expertise to call attention to a work of art that might otherwise be overlooked by people who do not spend their time thinking about such things. However, to limit the critic to only the role of a secondary player seems to overvalue the artwork itself, and denigrate the potential of reconstructing the world in words. Another important function of criticism is artistic creativity itself, the making of something in words out of that which does not at first glance seem to justify such care.
These two kinds of criticism can help us examine the popular reception of The Nice Guys, Shane Black’s new film, a vehicle for Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. While most popular critics have responded well to the film’s attempt to revive the buddy comedy that Black’s 1987 script for Richard Donner’ Lethal Weapon codified into reliable Hollywood box office, the critic at The New York Times, A. O. Scott derides the film, concluding that it “is unable to track down a soul or a reason for being.” While there’s nothing wrong with Scott not liking the film, his under-argued premise that the film does not have a purpose then proceeds to unleash comments that rely on worse circular reasoning. “BB” from Clarksville, TN pursues Scott’s lead: “I wouldn’t have been so generous as the reviewer for this film… overall the movie was a mess. It was too long, lacked coherence, had really sloppy editing, and was just a badly made movie.” The comments proceed to bifurcate into many that follow Scott to tell us how bad the movie is, with a few that turn against him, defending their pleasurable experience of it, but using the same unsupported logic that the naysayers do.
The current popular discourse about cinema devolves into mindless talk about whether the movie is good or bad. Any movie can be made “good” if the right axiomatic conditions are stipulated: slasher films are really good at dismembering women’s bodies. Conversely, any movie can be made “bad” with different assumptions: Citizen Kane is so boring because it won’t tell its story in a straightforward way. This form of criticism tells us something about the critic, but almost nothing about the work of art under scrutiny. Let me attempt a critical intervention that celebrates the newness of The Nice Guys (2016), while ultimately moving beyond the film’s project to instead sculpt a learned response that points to an intellectual world merely implied by the film.
The Nice Guys is neither a “good” film nor a “bad” one. It is a wildly ambitious attempt to use the intertextual language of film history in a new way. A pastiche of late 1970s American culture, The Nice Guys is the film that Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) was supposed to be, but was not. In his prime, Thomas Pynchon took the material of popular American culture and spun it into grandiose novels that taught us something about the American character. For my money, The Nice Guys does this far more compellingly than does Anderson’s film.
The Nice Guys is a Shane Black film in an auteurist sense. When our heroes walk in 1970s pornography-infested downtown Los Angeles, a funny marquee advertises a film entitled, “Bang Bang Kiss Kiss,” a rearrangement of Black’s directorial debut, the skillful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). After an opening scene in which a porn star dies in a car crash, Black cuts to a 1970s educational film called “Pool-Side Learning.” When a kid holds up a “gay towel,” Black cuts to the kids in the classroom laughing hysterically at their naughty interpretation of the word, gay. This scene of course invokes the best moment from Black’s best script, for the John McTiernan film, The Last Action Hero (1993), when an English teacher played by Joan Plowright has to settle her students down when they laugh at the word “bosom” uttered by Claudius in her husband Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning film adaptation of Hamlet (1948).
Black’s film is littered with references to cinema, both passing and grandiose. When the incompetent private investigator, Holland March (Gosling) falls down a cliff, only to land next to a murder victim’s corpse, he begins comic hijinx that summon Lou Costello’s behavior when first confronting the monster in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Charles Barton, 1948).
A more extended engagement is made with Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s 1975 neo-noir about a greedy man who rapes his daughter. When the daughter dies at the end, leaving her daughter who is also her sister in the clutches of the evil incestuous Noah Cross (John Huston), detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is left devastated. “Forget about it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” serves as a lamentation about the inability of the moral to defeat the corrupt.
The Nice Guys recapitulates this very plot, with a corrupt woman taking on the role of Noah Cross who sends goons out to kill her daughter, who has appeared in a pornographic film in order to publicly expose her mother’s betrayal of the American environment; Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger) has been paid off by the Big Three automakers to not prosecute her Justice Department case over the development of the catalytic converter. The New Guys invokes Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988), another neo-noir about Los Angeles and corruption, about a conspiracy to destroy public transportation so that multi-lane highways can be built for cars.
It is possible that A. O. Scott is correct, and that these post-modern references come so fast and furious that they do not add up to anything. However, I think I can build a converse argument. Near the end of the film, Kuttner’s secretary, Tally (Yaya DaCosta) reveals herself as part of the conspiracy, drawing a gun on Holland. Holland’s daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) pretends to deliver room service to the hotel room, barging her way in to help save her dad. Alas, the coffee she throws into Tally’s face is ice cold. The moment invokes The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953), a film noir in which the hot-head criminal Vince (Lee Marvin) famously throws scalding hot coffee into the beautiful face of his moll, Debby (Gloria Grahame). At the end of Lang’s film, Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is given a choice whether to avenge himself on Vince, who murdered his wife by blowing up her car. He refuses to pull the trigger, allowing the judicial system to punish Vince.
The most famous neo-noir to reactivate The Big Heat is L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997), a film in which a young Russell Crowe plays Bud White, a violent thug on the LAPD who partners with the honest Ed Exley (Guy Pearce). At the beginning of the film, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) advises Exley to shoot a criminal in the back to guarantee justice.
The corruption of the LAPD is so extensive—Smith is in fact a criminal kingpin—such vigilante justice rates low on the sins committed in the film. Smith attempts to pit Exley and White against each other via their mutual love of Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a prostitute who looks like Veronica Lake. However, Exley and White get wise, and set a trap for Smith. The plan begins to unravel, as Smith shoots White, but Exley does what his corrupt mentor advised, shooting Smith in the back.
The ending of L.A. Confidential thus undoes the critique of the vigilante that closed Fritz Lang’s film. Whereas Bannion restrains himself from gunning down his wife’s murderer, Exley leaves nothing to chance, executing the evil Smith on the street. Through its casting, The Nice Guys returns to the pessimistic ending of L.A. Confidential. Earlier in the film, while Holly runs from a car accident to get help for a criminal who has been run down by a van, Crowe’s Jackson Healy suffocates the man after he has given up the information he needs. Upon her return, Holly is suspicious. When she asks if Healy is a bad man, whether he killed the suspect, Healy lies to her, essentially concealing from her the fact that he continues to be White from L.A. Confidential.
Basinger’s character is again the motor driving to the film’s ending. This time, however, as Healy is about to kill John Boy, Basinger’s character’s hit man, Holly demands that Healy not execute him. Like Banion in The Big Heat, he relents, producing the film’s critique of vigilante violence. A smudge on the reformed Holland’s hand removes the word “never” from his tattoo, “you will never be happy.” By refusing murder at the behest of a thirteen-year old girl, Healy and Holland become the eponymous nice guys. In film noir voice over, Holland muses, “Sometimes, you just win.”
The interrogation of the vigilante is not only the central motif of film noir, running from The Big Heat through L.A. Confidential to The Nice Guys, it is also the auteurist glue that links together the films of Shane Black. In The Last Action Hero, the youthful protagonist rewrites Hamlet when he realizes Laurence Olivier’s character is not going to execute Claudius because he is praying. Versed in the language of 1980s action movies, the boy chants under his breath while watching the film in class, “Don’t talk, just do it.” When Shakespeare does not sate his blood lust, he sinks into a reverie, imagining Arnold Schwarzenegger as Hamlet: “To be or not to be… Not to be.” A Hollywood trailer voice-over joins in: “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, and Hamlet is taking out the trash.” The re-conversion of Hamlet (1604), the greatest consideration of the impact of violence in Western literature, adapted out of simplistic late 16th century revenge tragedies, into the neo-conservative logic of 1980s action movies, is one of the most artistic, and funniest, things to ever happen in such a film.
While A. O. Scott may be right—the frequency of movie references in The Nice Guys approaches that of the Zucker Brothers’ Airplane! (1980)—it could be the case that Black uses these references to build a comic vision of the action genre, something he began in The Last Action Hero, but perhaps aborted under the direction of John McTiernan, whose Die Hard (1988) positions him as a practitioner of that very Manichean logic of the neo-conservative action film. The Nice Guys has a precise purpose, the intertextual comic undoing of the vigilante logic of the action genre. Perhaps chaotic referencing is not the film’s flaw, but its greatest comic strength.
Do I read too much into The Nice Guys if I position it as a comic adaptation of Hamlet, a return to the delay of violence that ends The Big Heat, revealing the Shakespearean nature of film noir? Perhaps, but that is the second function of criticism, to reveal the world in a new way that not even the filmmakers could articulate in words; their métier is beautiful sounds and images. Cinematic aesthetic practices can be made to have a purpose, if only we learn how to express it in words.