Holland March is a private eye in late ‘70’s LA.
He is not a very good private eye.
Well, he is, and he isn’t.
His instincts can be sharp, as can his deductive powers, but both have been dulled by his chronic drinking. Not that anyone can blame him for seeking solace in a bottle: His wife passed away some time ago, and then the home he and his now thirteen-year-old daughter Holly shared burned down. It would be an exaggeration to say that you can read all of this history in his eyes in the first few seconds of seeing him, but it wouldn’t be far off.
Holland March is of course one of the two main characters in the 2016 buddy cop gem, The Nice Guys. He’s played by Ryan Gosling, and that is a huge part of why we can read so much about March so quickly. His co-star, Russell Crowe, plays Jackson Healy, a tough guy for hire whose raw physical power and gruff demeanour plays off March’s nervy energy perfectly. Directed by Shane Black from his own script (co-authored with Anthony Bagarozzi), The Nice Guys gives Black’s most celebrated works a run for their money. Alongside 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s the most overtly comedy-oriented of Black’s films. I first saw The Nice Guys when it came out, and though I enjoyed it a lot, it’s only on repeated viewings that I’ve come to appreciate just how funny the film really is, and—crucially—how pivotal a role Ryan Gosling plays in that humour’s success.
Even before The Nice Guys came out, Gosling was no stranger to feature film comedies. 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love was a fairly formulaic American romantic comedy, but it was a mostly successful one, with Gosling himself being among its funniest components. In Crazy, Stupid, Love, Gosling played a flashy, sharply dressed womaniser named Jacob, who forms an unlikely mentorship/friendship with Steve Carrell’s down-on-his-luck, middle aged Cal. Cal is in the middle of a painful divorce. Jacob’s arc begins with him in a state of perpetual outrage at the schlubby way that Cal presents himself to the world. That dynamic, combined with the easy banter that the script gave him and Emma Stone’s character, provided Gosling with plenty of room to play for laughs with his readings and reactions.
Gosling was also hilarious while playing douchebag trader Jared Vennett in one of my favourite films of the new millennium, 2015’s The Big Short. The clues as to his comedic abilities were there. Nevertheless it wasn’t until the following year that I would fully appreciate what the actor was capable of when it came to comedy. Seeing Gosling as Holland March in 2016’s The Nice Guys was an experience akin to Brad Pitt becoming Chad Feldheimer in 2009’s Burn After Reading. That role took one of the most attractive men in Hollywood and turned him into a bumbling, out of his depth buffoon with a terrible haircut and a propensity for ridiculous dance. It remains one of Pitt’s very best performances. The transformation of Gosling into Holland March may well not be as dramatic as that of Pitt into Feldheimer, but the way Gosling plays so effectively against type in The Nice Guys is part of what makes watching the film such a joyful experience, and it is a quantum leap from playing roles that are undeniably funny, but which still rest in some ways on his charisma and good looks.
The Nice Guys has some of my favourite protagonist introductions in recent memory. First we get to see Crowe’s Healy. Healy is big, ruthless but fair, and he gets paid. He’s got the grizzled narration down to a tee. We first see him tailing a 30-something creep who appears to be grooming a schoolgirl by letting her smoke weed back at his place. Healy has been hired to dissuade him. So he does, with a knock on the door and a knuckle duster-enhanced punch to the face that knocks the pervert back like a bowling ball does a hapless pin. The impression is immediate and potent: This guy is a professional. His profession may be somewhat ill-defined and a bit brutal, but he’s damn good at it.
And then we go to Holland March. March’s introduction is even more effective than Healy’s. We open on a shot of a bathroom, and slowly pan down to see the back of someone’s head. They are in a bathtub, watching a television that has been set up at the foot of the tub. We then cut to a shot that’s one of my favourites in the whole film. When I said earlier that it’s possible to know almost everything we need to know about Holland March within a few seconds of looking into his eyes, this is the shot I was thinking of:
There’s something virtuoso about Gosling’s expression here. Yes, the framing helps, as does the mise-en-scène, but Gosling nails the exact right look that’s needed to amplify the mood created by this superbly evocative scene of a man in a bathtub in his blue suit. This is staring into the middle distance perfected to an Olympic level. Gosling does this throughout The Nice Guys, constantly demonstrating an amazing ability to communicate to us the agitated mixture of emotions that roil inside Holland March. With his barely contained frustrations, short temper, and alternating episodes of despair and (sometimes misguided, sometimes not) confidence, Holland March may exist on the page of Black and Bagarozzi’s script, but he comes to sublime, hilarious life with Ryan Gosling’s performance. Despite pieces of evidence that hinted at the truth before, I had simply never believed that the actor could be this side-splittingly funny.
After watching The Nice Guys for the third or fourth time the other day, I felt compelled to climb on top of the little podium I have here to proclaim this truth to the world by listing, in no particular order, the Holland March bits of The Nice Guys that make me laugh the most.
So here we go.
1. The opening narration.
This is a great bit of opening voice over that confirms for us what we already knew from seeing March waking up in his bathtub in a suit and then fumbling around on the floor trying to answer a floor-phone before bumping his head on a wall:
‘I wish I wished for things, man. My folks, they told me to reach for the stars, and then my pals on the force said reach for the brass ring, and then my wife died and I reached for whatever came in a gallon and cost a buck fifty. She used to say I got no follow through. I hit nails half way and stop. She’s not wrong.’
Nice bit of hard-boiled noir rhythm there, and Gosling delivers it very well. He delivers it over footage of him stuck in LA traffic. He’s shaving while reading a newspaper. And then, the punchline that immediately undercuts the tough guy narration: He cuts himself shaving, and it’s funny as hell:
2. Healy and March get acquainted.
This entire sequence is a complete treat to be honest, and I struggle to whittle things down to a few lines. It’s the first time our two protagonists meet. Healy has arrived at March’s house to warn him off looking for the girl that he has been hired to look for. He does this in typical Healy fashion: By throwing March around, and—when March attempts to reach for a gun—swatting him onto the floor and then fracturing a bone in his arm. Gosling complements Crowe’s calm, no-nonsense demeanour brilliantly throughout, as he flails around alternately trying to comprehend the situation, defend himself, and just plain get Healy to leave him alone. Every single line out of Gosling’s mouth is gold. From, ‘I think you have the wrong house!’ just after he gets sucker punched by Healy at the door, to an exasperated, outraged, ‘What’s the message?!’ in response to Healy saying he’s a messenger but then getting off track and asking how March can afford a house like he has on a PI’s salary.
Bonus points go to the moment when March reveals his client’s name without any fuss. Healy asks him who hired him, and March, struggling up from the floor, instantly gives up the name. Healy can’t quite believe what he’s hearing, and chides March on how easily he divulged that information. To which March, while trying to subtly move towards a hidden gun: ‘Well I thought that’s what you wanted!’ Man, I laugh so much at this line. The sudden, momentary high pitch that Gosling’s voice goes into, his body language giving away the fact that he’s letting his mouth talk while he inches towards his gun, it all just kills me.
But the standout moment in what is already a standout scene is that arm-breaking. Against the floor-bound March’s ludicrously inept struggle, Healy forces his arm back and calmly tells him that when he goes to see his doctor he should inform him that he has a spiral fracture at the left radius. Throughout this whole process, Gosling is just letting loose the most amazing noises. There’s a ‘Huh?!’ as Healy tells him to give him his left arm. A ‘No! NNNNO!’ as Healy tries to take his arm that ends up sounding like a medium-sized dog growling. And then finally, the scream. Gosling’s scream as Healy breaks his harm is just a thing of beauty. Five whole seconds of a high-pitched unbroken whine followed by a staccato descent.
3. Drunken sleuthing.
While attending an opulent party, Healy and March split up to look for leads. Healy, ever the professional, does exactly that. March, on the other hand, partakes of one drink too many. To his credit, he still tries to question people, the words just have a little difficulty in coming out in the right order. I’m a sucker for funny drunk talk in films, and Gosling delivers this nugget of gold here in his search for information about his quarry, Amelia:
‘Hi everyone, I’m Amelia! She’s about yea high, dark hair and answers tooooo… the call of the wild! I’m just kidding. I forgot her name, but if you see you, if you see, let me know, and tell me. Tell me my name.’
At one point, Healy and March are trading buddy cop banter, when the subject of ventriloquists comes up. March cuts the metaphor short: ‘F*ck those guys. You can always see their mouths moving.’ I don’t really know why, but his sharp dismissal of ventriloquists just cracks me the hell up every time.
While canvassing the neighbourhood of a crime scene, March and Healy question a local kid, who offers a name he thinks might be relevant. ‘Sid Hatrack’ he says. To which March, in the same tone as when dismissing ventriloquists: ‘Nobody’s name is hatrack.’ Again, this a tiny moment, but it’s extremely funny, and Gosling’s demeanour makes it.
6. A corpse by lighter light.
Here I will take the liberty of simply quoting the opening of Brian Tallerico’s The Nice Guys review, because it describes everything much better than I could:
There’s a scene midway through Shane Black’s fun “The Nice Guys” in which Ryan Gosling’s truly mediocre private investigator has stumbled down a hill, drunkenly trying to impress a girl at a party. As he will do several times in the film, he literally falls into a clue, a rotting corpse of someone he’s been looking for. And what does Gosling do when he comes face to face with it? He doesn’t respond in the typically nonchalant movie star way. No, he digs much deeper into the comedy movie bag of tricks and pulls out, of all things, a Lou Costello impression—that wonderful, silent scream the actor would do when he saw something like the Wolfman.
7. This lean.
The lean happens twice, later in the movie. By this point, I’m so hooked on what Gosling is giving me, I laugh uncontrollably just because of a lean. The fact that the second time features a zoom in on his face? Chef’s kiss!
8. Misplaced confidence
Following the party at which March sleuths drunkenly and discovers a corpse thanks to a drunken fall, he and Healy are questioned by police. The duo are, however, eager to get going so as to carry on with their case. They try to get the police office to to let them go on their way. He apologetically says that he has to keep them there for a bit longer, and that he’s just following orders. To which March: ‘You know who else was just following orders? Hitler.’ On delivery of a line that must’ve been worn out to death even in the seventies, he turns to Healy, satisfied with himself, and winks with a smile. Not long after, the reason for their being kept there arrives: Kim Basinger’s high-ranking Department of Justice official. She rolls down her car window, and asks the battered and bruised March and Healy: ‘How do you do?’ March, seemingly on a brilliant roll in his head, fires back: ”bout this good most of the time!’ and turns to Healy and winks again, with another smile. Healy has no reaction.
9. ‘The world’s worst?!’
This exchange between Holly and Holland March:
Holly: ‘You’re the world’s worst detective!’
Holland: ‘I’m the worst?’
Holland: ‘The world’s worst?’
I can’t begin to tell you how much Gosling’s attitude and the emphasis on world’s makes me guffaw. Like as long as he isn’t the literal Number One Awful Detective, he will have gotten one over his daughter here.
10. The goddamn elevator scene.
I’ve raved a lot about Goslin’s ability to use subvert his good looks and to bring out the subtle hangdog look that he has naturally to a much more prominent level and to be able to use that to pull some truly fantastic faces in The Nice Guys. There’s maybe no better illustration of this than the elevator scene about three quarters of the way through the movie. The set up is: March and Healy are tracking down a lead. They have ended up at an airport hotel, and after intimidating the initially hesitant bartender on the ground floor bar they have ascertained that the person they seek is in the penthouse. Despite that, the bartender warns them that they really shouldn’t go up there. The guys who went up there before look like they mean business. In addition to that, Healy has also just divulged to March that there is a deadly assassin now in town, hired to kill him and everyone else involved in the case. And going by the bartender’s information, that assassin is probably upstairs right now.
After a quick discussion over the relative merits of laying low or charging upstairs, the two decide to take the elevator up. This whole sequence is an absolute masterclass by Gosling, with nearly every frame bringing with it a new expression, each one of which makes me laugh more than the last. First, the two ride up. March makes small nervous small talk. Then, the elevator arrives at the top floor, at which point the pair hears the sounds of violence. They pop their heads out, witness the violence, and discreetly ride the elevator back down. During that ride, a screaming man is thrown out of the window from the floor they were just on, at which point March starts to vibrate with so much stress and fear that it looks like he is literally about to pop.
11. The goddamn toilet cubicle scene.
Look, I don’t even have words for this, okay? Everything that I have talked about in this piece, from Gosling’s incredible facial expressions, to his puncturing of his own usual actor image, to his embodiment of Holland March’s ramshackle persona comes together here perfectly with his wonderful skill at slapstick:
I laugh until I cry. Every time.
12. ‘That’s a lot of blood.’
Earlier I touched on Gosling’s high-pitched scream in the arm-breaking scene. Holland March gets spooked, shocked, and startled a lot in The Nice Guys. Maybe his most common reaction is a high-pitched ‘Jesus!’ Often this is caused, hilariously, by his daughter. Once, when she claps her hands behind him at a bowling alley.
Another time when a key character pops out of a door during a firefight.
Then immediately after when Holly hands him a gun by pointing it at him.
There’s one more during the final shootout of the movie, after March hides behind a car that he doesn’t realise is on a rotating platform, so by the time he pops out to shoot, he is no longer in cover, and he is aiming somewhere completely different (a fantastic joke in and of itself already).
And there’s a final one as the cherry on the cake, in the epilogue, when March goes to meet Healy at a bar (at Christmas, because it’s a Shane Black movie and we haven’t had a Christmas reference yet). March strides into the bar, looks to his right, and is surprised to see Holly there waiting for him. He jumps a bit, and breathes out a soft ‘Jesus!’, because even when the threat is over and we are at the end of the film and at a point where our heroes can technically relax in their (sort of) happy ending, Holland March is still a jittery wreck.
Okay. I did say that the order of this list wouldn’t be ranked in any way, but I did decide to leave my favourite Holland March moment right until the end. It’s a fleeting moment. It shoots by in a few seconds, and is surrounded by other, more significant events that actually move the plot forward, but in this briefest of moments, Gosling’s performance and the film’s script just come together in such a way that I laugh out of sheer giddy glee every time.
March is at a bowling alley for Holly’s birthday. Holly’s friends are all there too. They are crowded around March, yelling over each other incomprehensibly as he tries to organise them. ‘Jesus Christ!’ he shouts out in frustration. ‘One at a time!’
Janet doesn’t like that.
‘You took the Lord’s name in vain!’ she protests.
To which Holland March: ‘No I didn’t, Janet!’
Much like Gosling’s emphasis in his ‘The world’s worst?!’ argument with Holly, this is a funny moment on paper, that becomes absolutely transcendental with Gosling’s delivery. I’m cracking up just writing about it now. Every time I watch the film, I laugh at it more.
Somebody, please cast this man as a hapless private eye more often. I beg you.