“So you’re telling me you made a porno where the plot is the point?”
–Holland March, “The Nice Guys”
The Nice Guys is a 2016 movie directed by Shane Black and starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. Taking place in the late 1970s, it’s an action-comedy about a murder conspiracy centering around a porn movie. Hovering over the proceedings are various icons of the time, including Richard Nixon—but of course these ultimately contain parallels to the current era.
Shane Black, you may remember, is also the director of the 2013 movie Iron Man 3—a film that borrowed key plot points from the headlines of “fringe” news outlets (such as Osama Bin Laden was just an actor created by the CIA). So the ultimate conceit of The Nice Guys, that a porn movie actually contains dramatized documentation of a corporate/governmental conspiracy, takes on a deeper meaning in that context.
But if the U.S. Government and Corporate America are the bad guys in The Nice Guys, Hollywood isn’t looking too good either. The sleazy porn industry portrayed in the movie—complete with uncomfortable pedophilic overtones—could be a stand-in for the world Black works in in real-life. Of particular interest is how much that porn world is “coded” as specifically Disney—the Little Mermaid, Pinocchio, and the White Rabbit make an appearance at porn magnate Sid Shattuck’s party, and Shattuck himself (half his face obliterated by a gunshot) subliminally reminds one of Walt.
Even the young woman of interest in the story, Amelia, wears a very specific yellow dress that is reminiscent of Belle’s from Beauty and the Beast.
The question that ran through my mind while watching all this—especially in light of how much we now know of the sexual malfeasance and crimes that were plaguing Hollywood for decades—is, was indeed Black trying to make a reference to the industry he worked at? Frequent Black collaborator, Robert Downey Jr., is often referenced in gossip circles as “secretly” trying to air out Hollywood’s dirty laundry. Is Black trying to do that as well with The Nice Guys—his own movie the literal manifestation of the truth-telling “conspiracy” porn film?
And, I just remembered—of course Iron Man 3 was made for Disney.
But then you can also look at The Nice Guys as a statement about conspiracies in government, with blond cold-as-ice high-powered prosecutor Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger) possibly a stand-in for Hilary Clinton. Kuttner is literally equated as “the government” in the film, cutting (if you will excuse the pun) deals with Detroit automakers (Corporate America); the behind-the-scenes shenanigans the subject of the “conspiracy porn” movie.
At the time The Nice Guys was released, Clinton was considered the “front-runner” in the 2016 presidential race—the savior. Compare that to this famous Nixon-centered quote from the movie, in which Crowe’s character recalls an anecdote in which a dying man sees Richard Nixon—”Sometimes you see an angel, sometimes you see Nixon.”
That anecdote is one of the keys to the entire film—this sense of ambivalence. Kuttner is indeed caught up in a conspiracy, and is not the “angel” she appears to be. BUT: as she explains at the end of the film, she did what she had to do to get things done in a corrupt town. And she warns that as bad as they think she is, who comes after her is probably going to be a LOT worse.
And we all know, in real life, how that turned out later in 2016.
Car-manufacturing Detroit—still a money-maker in in the 1970s, though just about to start its decline—is a metaphor for America in this movie.
There are also some interesting little repeated memes throughout The Nice Guys, which seem inexplicable unless seen through Black’s quirky political-futurist lens (remember, the bad guy in Iron Man 3 was ultimately the TED-talky Steve-Jobby Elon-Musky dude). For example, this focus on the future of the car industry: first when Gosling says we will probably all have electric cars from Japan in the future, and then an extended drug-trip sequence where he’s in a self-driving car & told that everybody has self-driving cars. (It should be noted that last year’s Geostorm, set in the 2020s, I think, also had self-driving cars as the norm).
The “message” Black is trying to say here, if we accept that Detroit in the film is a stand-in for America? That we are not prepared for the New Economy (which is also alluded to in Iron Man 3).
Then there is the continuing motif of the “killer bee”—at one point, Gosling hallucinating a talking human-sized bee. Could it be a reference to Colony Collapse? Again, it’s the idea that we are not prepared for the world that is coming, us in 2016 essentially being those clueless late-Seventies dudes and dudettes in polyester and bellbottoms. In that sense, The Nice Guys has a lot of resonances with 1998’s The Big Lebowski (set in the early 1990’s during Operation Desert Storm)—both movies using Richard Nixon as an iconic figure, Nixon the resonator of a corrupt government.
Ryan Gosling & Russell Crowe are essentially Jeff Bridges and John Goodman in Lebowski, if Goodman’s character had an extended part. These movies are incredibly similar, both owing a lot to the slacker hero Elliot Gould played in the influential 1973 film The Long Goodbye (a great one to watch, if you haven’t already done so).
Gosling, tongue planted firmly in cheek, resonates the current hero-of-the-moment of contemporary Hollywood—high on style and hipster good looks, lower on substance. In contrast, a bit older & heavier Crowe represents the action hero of the era that has just passed—literally, he is playing himself & is probably the best thing about the movie.
Throughout it all, Black returns again and again to an almost childlike sense of innocence tested and betrayed and tested again—symbolized by Gosling’s young daughter in the film continually confronting Crowe’s character about killing people. For all his irreverence, the director seems to be an idealist at heart—burying the truth in the “trash,” for more adventurous movie watchers to suss out.
Bonus: find “King Felix” in the trailer: