Slapping the buddy-cop throwback label on "The Nice Guys," director and co-writer Shane Black's manic drop into a porn-addled and gas-short 1977s Los Angeles, isn't completely accurate, but it's not exactly wrong either.

The familiar elements are all there: The weathered and weary straight man in Russell Crowe's Jackson Healy and the fast-talking buffoon in Ryan Gosling's Holland March — a pair of relatively inept but routinely effective private eyes who are tracking down a woman who went missing. Noir tones creep out of the bushes every once in a while, but the caper at the movie's center shuffles along mainly to allow the two dicks to continue with a steady stream of quips and pratfalls.

Nixon
Nixon

It's hard-drinking and hard-slapping if never quite reaching (or really aiming for) hard-boiled. Guns go bang and people die, but any cool-headed poise March and Healy show off almost immediately devolves into panicked screams, a string of expletives and someone falling through a window or over a rooftop. A pair of Sam Spades they are not.

March, a functional alcoholic who spends more time devising ways to bilk customers out of another payment rather than doing any actual sleuthing, is usually the one on the receiving end of the Three Stooges-esque tomfoolery. He's also the movie's resident motormouth, levying smart-assed barbs at everyone around him (including his daughter Holly, played by a spunky Angourie Rice), but most often at Healy. Healy, in turn, spends most of his time breaking faces and wondering if he's a good person.


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The two each have their own sets of regrets and aspirations that are sort of (but not really) explored as the wild goose chase fleshes itself out, but "The Nice Guys'" efforts are better spent on swagger and shouted spittle than narrative coherence or humanizing buffoons.

The gags aren't particularly smart, but damn if they're not quick — and they land far more often than not. Jokes are seeded early on and called back later in the heat of a firefight or the middle of a hot-headed rant in a way that comes close to feeling of closing off a loose end, but it's more a result of quick, clever pacing and wordplay on Black's end than any actual resolution.

But that's OK — engrossing plots and coherence aren't a necessary prerequisite to get an audience laughing. Gosling tends to steal to show on the comedy front with his general air of ineptitude and misplaced confidence — any time he tries to do something out of the "How to Be a Cool PI" handbook, it tends to blow up in his face, usually followed by a scream and some frightened scrambling.

You won't have as much fun getting lost in the mystery of "The Nice Guys" as you will following the banter. Breezy and enjoyable, it's not doing much new or profound, but it knows what it's doing well.

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