The Nice Guys sees Gosling and Crowe buddyup in the Seventies. ShortList meets Hollywood’s latest, greatest double act
“Have you spoken to Ryan?” asks Russell Crowe.
I have, yes.
“So you don’t get an opportunity to talk to him again?”
I don’t, no.
Two jets of white smoke escape from Crowe’s nostrils, he begins to smile with his eyes. To ‘smeyes’.
“His nickname is ‘Spanky’.”
Where on earth does that come from?
”Unfortunately you won’t get to ask him.”
Dammit. What was your nickname?
The smeyesing graduates into a grin. Not a word. Crowe is only partially lifting the veil on his relationship with Ryan Gosling, although I later learn that the answer is ‘Mucky Muck’. Your guess is as good as mine.
You will have seen Spanky and Mucky Muck at an awards ceremony near you in recent months, being very funny in an arm-punching, stick-poking way. They’ve become quite the double act. It’s a good reflection of their latest film: The Nice Guys.
Set in Seventies Los Angeles, Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a hired heavy forced to work with Holland March, Gosling’s flaky private dick with even flakier morals. As they hunt for a missing girl, they take us into a complex, corrupt and unpleasantly sticky web that’s stuck to the face of organised crime, big business, government and pornography.
It is a model that we know and love: an action comedy in which two mismatched, flawed but essentially good characters are paired to hilarious effect against more potent foes. Think Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Last Boy Scout.
In fact, think hard about those, because they were all produced by Joel Silver and three of them were written by Shane Black: the team behind The Nice Guys (Black not only writing here but, as with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also directing).
This film has serious ‘buddy’ pedigree, but Crowe doesn’t like that word (“We’re not really buddies, are we?”), which leaves me with no choice but to continue this article uncomfortably using the Hollywood term for such films: the two-hander. The secret of a good two-hander, you’ll all agree, is chemistry.
But how do you make that happen? Crowe claims that you don't.
“Look man, that’s the alchemy of the film business,” he says. “The thing that you see, that is cold chemistry, a natural energy thing between two people, whether it be a man and a woman, or two blokes, two women or whatever. If it’s there it’s there, if it’s not it’s just not. So Ryan and I just have that natural energy where we work off each other and it’s really apparent in every conversation we have. Did you watch the Academy Awards?”
Only until my eyes glazed over. Luckily, Crowe and Gosling presented the first gong of the night – best something or other – so I saw their highly amusing, self-effacing little skit.
"Even doing little silly things like that, there’s a thing between us, and that’s cool. Obviously in a movie like this you want some of that, but it’s not something that you can really manufacture. We already knew each other and had dinner together, so we knew that we got on. In fact, the first time I rang him, I said, ‘It’s Russell Crowe’, and he goes, ‘Oh, Mr Crowe. I’ve been expecting this call. Yes, I’d like to apologise for so obviously stealing your sh*t for the past 10 years.' When you’re confronted with a guy who’s that witty and charming, it’s pretty easy to get on with him."
Who says it’s hard for older men to make new friends? When I speak to Gosling a few minutes earlier (thus scuppering any chance of unravelling the Spanky mystery), I find him equally enamoured of his co-star.
“I’ve never made an action film before,” he says, “but Russell is so casual about it, because he’s done it so many times, so I felt we were in good hands with him handling that part of it.
“I don’t have any fun stories about what we did to bond. Shane creates a specific and fun world and the dynamic kind of came out of that. You know, when you’re talking to a giant bee or talking to a guy with a magazine covering you on a toilet [you’ll need to watch the film], you really get to know somebody in those situations. They are bonding moments."
The word ‘alchemy’ is also used by Joel Silver when discussing his two leads: “It’s luck,” he says. “It’s chemistry and alchemy.” But when this is the man who paired Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Bruce Willis with Damon Wayans, and Robert Downey Jr with Val Kilmer (and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes), luck seems less of factor. In fact, with The Nice Guys, Silver knew who he wanted and got his first choice duo in the space of, coincidentally, 48 hours. Black was literally on a flight to Australia to meet with Crowe about the film, when Silver met with Gosling’s agent. By the time Black got to Crowe, he already had an unofficial “If Russell does it, I’ll do it” from Gosling. So they did it.
As with those other couplings, bar the casting of Murphy and Wayans, Silver has once again tapped into unexpected comedy talents. Most of Crowe’s past characters would’ve stabbed themselves to death rather than exhibit the weakness of laughter, yet he plays the straight man with gruff, Nolte-standard aplomb. Gosling has had his droll moments, in films such as The Big Short, Lars And The Real Girl and Crazy, Stupid, Love, but here he’s gone from solid lower-league striker to top-flight goal machine. Yes, Ryan Gosling is the Jamie Vardy of comic acting. He is the funniest thing in an extremely funny film, exhibiting almost Keaton-esque physical prowess.
“Physical comedy has always been my favourite thing,” he says. “It just didn’t seem that opportunities were going for me. I grew up watching old Mel Brooks stuff, Abbott and Costello. Buster Keaton as I got older. I guess I didn’t imagine I’d get the chance to do it.
“It’s like a dance. You have to choreograph. And the comedy, too, has a rhythm to it. I grew up dancing, and obviously I never planned on being a dancer, but I’m glad I had that background, because it does come into play in these kind of situations.”
Holland March takes a proper kicking from pretty much every character in the film, not least Healy. I mention Stephen Fry, who said he always admired Hugh Laurie’s performances in Blackadder because, in comedy terms, it’s far easier to hit than be hit. It’s all in the reaction, apparently.
“I think it’s definitely harder to get hit,” Gosling laughs. “There’s one scene where I fall through a plate glass window, I fall on to a car, I roll off covered in glass, I roll off, I get sideswiped by a giant Samoan linebacker stunt guy, then I have to hold on to his ankles while he runs five blocks, I get shot off a roof into a pool, and then an explosion blows me behind another car.
“That took a week to shoot and I did everything except the pool. They don’t let you do that. It gave me a lot of sympathy for what Wile E Coyote went through. But I worked with this great stunt guy who had just worked on Fury. He’d been stabbed by a bayonet in that film, a month before we shot, and he was willing to do everything I did. So I didn’t complain too much. It was a good incentive.”
When March is in pain, Gosling also unleashes an astonishingly high-pitched scream that is, in equal parts, disturbing, pitiful and uproarious. “It was really high-pitched, wasn’t it?”
Really high. Is that something you worked on?
“No. Unfortunately I knew that I could do that. I was hoping to keep that in the tool box, but I had to bring it out. The scenes required it.”
“One surprise working with Ryan,” says Crowe, “is just how much he can make me laugh and how easily he can make me laugh. That little f*cker. I shouldn’t say that. That little b*gger. With any given thing, he sees it from a perspective that, in my eyes, is funny. That makes your day very easy, mate. He was channelling Gene Wilder or something. Nothing that he was about to do on any given take could you in any sure way bet on. It’s fantastic, because it allows you to be free as well."
Shane Black actually wrote The Nice Guys before Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, originally with a contemporary setting. Over time, and after rejecting the chance to make it into a TV series, it evolved into a period piece. However, with Los Angeles not being what it once was, most of the film was shot in Atlanta, Georgia, making things a little darker.
“We realised, this doesn’t look anything like Los Angeles,” says Crowe. “So anything outside, we had to do at night. And Atlanta in the winter is not Hotlanta. No, it’s freezing. And we’re wearing Hawaiian shirts and open collars, looking at each other and going: ‘Just be funny.’”
Although The Nice Guys is set in the Seventies, the Seventies isn’t the gag. It isn’t parodying the decade, so much as using the decade as a set. There’s no internet and no mobile phones – which always helps a crime story by making the crime harder to solve – and it’s that much seedier, which always helps when you want to include elaborate porn parties in your plot, complete with ‘mermaids’ and hats made out of cigarettes.
“I was at parties like the party in the film,” says Silver. “I lived through that and I was able to channel it and put it in the movie. I remember the period very well. It was a really crazy time.”
“We didn’t want to play the joke of the Seventies,” says Gosling. “We wanted what was funny about the movie to be situational and not just because of the time frame. It’s not trying to be ironic about the Seventies at all, which I think makes it funnier, because the jokes aren’t obvious. I have a conversation with a giant talking bee as opposed to, like, a giant afro bee, you know?"
In case you’re thinking about it, I’ve already registered Giant Afro Bee as a trademark and am forming the band as you read. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, if all goes well, the plan is to turn The Nice Guys into a franchise.
“They all asked, ‘When can we do it again?’” says Silver. “I hate to talk about a sequel when the movie hasn’t even opened yet, but the dream of a movie like this is that we can easily keep going with these two characters. We could do one in the Eighties, one in the Nineties and just keep making these movies. The Nice Guys in…, you know?”
I do know, and I like, but I can’t help but think I’d also like to see another two-hander franchise. Spanky And Mucky Muck in..., anyone?
The Nice Guys is at cinemas nationwide from 3 June
[Images: Getty, Icon, Kobal]