Premise: When the female TV star for a popular children’s show commits suicide, two low-life investigators are hired to look into claims that a dead-ringer for the actress has been seen around town.
About: One of the biggest specs out there right now, “The Nice Guys” has actually been around for over a decade, originally written in 2003. But the project has been jolted back to life, with both Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling preliminarily attached. Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3) co-wrote the script with Anthony Bagarozzi, who, despite this script being a decade old, is just now seeing his career blow up. He has four projects in various stages of development as a writer or director, including Doc Savage. Important to note: the script I’m reviewing today is the original draft written back in 2003.
Writers: Anthony Bagarozzi & Shane Black
Details: 135 pages (April 14, 2003)
Isn’t Hollywood great? No matter how deep into obscurity you sink, the town will always give you another chance. Shane Black was on one of the biggest screenwriting streaks in history in the 90s, selling every spec that spat out of his printer for a minimum of 1.3 trillion dollars. But then the printer carton burst on stylistic over-the-top dialogue-heavy specs and, Black found himself no longer able to heat his apartment with a fire full of hundred dollar bills.
Oh sure, Black probably got plenty of money in those “lean years” doing rewrites. But once you’ve tasted the frosting at the top of Hollywood’s cake, you never want to go back to the frozen Sara Lee stuff again. So Black did something smart. Instead of waiting for Hollywood to re-recognize his genius again, he directed his own script, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And for a brief moment, Black was back.
The flick didn’t make enough money to catapult him back to the top but it just so happened to get him a strong relationship with Robert Downey Jr., who became a super star when he starred in the surprise hit, Iron Man, a few years later.
Fast forward another few years, and guess who was now calling to ask Shane to direct the newest entry in the franchise?
What’s funny about all this is that a script Black wrote all the way back in 2003, which he couldn’t get the local community theater director to read, was now the hottest script in town. Does Black’s return celebrity make this script better than it once was? Or was the script overlooked in the first place? Let’s find out.
Suzy Shoemaker is the adorable 20-something star of one of those kids shows that every 4 year old in the universe loves. She’s also dead. Or, she kills herself at the beginning of the movie after a private sex tape surfaces of her.
Cut to Jackson Healy, a “private enforcer” of sorts, the adult version of a bully-for-hire, who thin-timidates anybody who messes with you, for the right price of course.
If Healy’s low-rent, Holland March is a 20 dollar a month storage unit. The 40-something private investigator makes most of his money by taking advantage of the Alzheimer’s crowd. Say a mentally absent old woman needs to find her husband (who’s, of course, dead). Holland has no problem taking the dough and “looking for him.”
These two winners are forced to team up and find “Alice,” a mysterious lookalike for the dead Suzy Shoemaker, and a semi-professional porn actress. Is it a coincidence that Suzy killed herself over a porn tape when there’s someone who looks exactly like her that does porn? That’s what these two need to find out.
Oh, and Suzy Shoemaker also happens to be the daughter of presidential hopeful David Shoemaker. All of a sudden, these suspicion crumbs are starting to look like they may belong to a freshly baked conspiracy scone.
To throw just one more wrench into this equation, March’s 14 year old overly-inquisitive daughter, Holly, wants to help. March knows this is a bad idea, but there are so many hip young folks involved in this mystery, that having a teenager around to do some undercover snooping may end up paying off.
Of course, you know if a 14 year old girl is getting involved in a case with dead people, that at some point said 14 year old girl is going to be in danger. So March and Healy aren’t just going to have to solve this case. They’re going to have to keep Holly safe, something that becomes harder and harder to do the deeper this mystery gets. And in case you’re wondering, it gets real deep!
Black (along with co-writer Bagarozzi) does what he does best. He puts a couple of flawed ill-matched individuals on a case together and allows them to equal-parts succeed and stumble their way to success. It’s what made Black one of the most successful screenplay writers ever.
But as we all know, this is one well-worn genre. The audience has seen it all. Therefore, if you want to succeed, you have to do more than follow a formula. And The Nice Guys separates itself from its competition in a couple of ways.
First off, this is Shane Black. He’s so fucking good at writing this kind of movie, that he stands out from everyone else just by showing up. Everything from the action to the dialogue is a level above. It’s funnier. It’s smarter. It’s better. Every other page we get a line like, “Marriage is buying a house for someone you hate.” Or, “If you had me ‘figured,’ jagoff, you’d start running – and you wouldn’t stop ‘til all the signs were in Spanish.”
Then there were the descriptions: “The Counter Girl is a punkish looking freak with pierced everything.”
We even get fun little moments that your average writer never thinks of. For example, you ever wonder where those stray bullets go? In a scene where Healy’s struggling to get away from the bad guys, he barely avoids a shot to the head. Instead of that being the end of it, we watch the bullet go out the window, across the street, and strike an unsuspecting woman at her window in the shoulder. She yelps and falls down out of frame. It was hilarious.
But just being the best at a genre isn’t enough. You should always be pushing yourself, looking for little angles to make your story different from any other “buddy cop” flick out there. Here, Black and Bagarozzi do this with Holly, March’s 14 year old daughter. I mean how many buddy cop movies have you seen where the cops are forced to lug a 14 year old girl around? Not many.
And it’s not just for show. You see, when you add an unknown element to a known situation, you get a new dynamic. Your cop duo can’t just hurl predictable insults at each other for 90 minutes. Healy has to be careful with what he says, since Holly’s always around. March has to stop every once in awhile and figure out how to keep Holly out of harm’s way.
There are even situations where March needs his daughter to get the job done (fitting in with a younger crowd to infiltrate a party). So his daughter temporarily becomes the most valuable commodity of the three, giving her the power, and shifting the dynamic, once again, to something that feels unfamiliar. Which is good! The last thing you want in a buddy-cop movie is brain-numbing familiarity.
Here’s the thing with The Nice Guys, though. It has a lot of moving parts. It’s basically like “The Other Guys,” but with a brain. And while that’s certainly nice (yay for movies that don’t pander!), it feels like it needs a simplicity pass. I couldn’t figure out, for the life of me, why Suzy Shoemaker’s aunt hired March to find Alice (the Suzy lookalike) in the first place. Did she think Alice was her niece? Did she just want to see a woman who looked like her niece? I don’t know.
And I know that information is in the script somewhere. But I had to process so much information, it slipped by me. This happens a lot. I’ll confusedly ask a writer, “Why did Ace want to double-cross Mary if he was in love with her?” And the writer, huffing and puffing, will animatedly respond with, “Did you even read the script!? The answer is on page 55 line 12. She gives him the copy of The Grapes of Wrath, which, if you remember, he read to her on page 12 in their childhood flashback, and she said, if you ever see this book again, it means I can never be with you.” Um, right.
The point is, the more complicated a plot is, the more hand-holding the reader needs. ESPECIALLY in the early-going, since that’s when the most new information is being thrown at the reader. Later, when we have all the names and relationships down, we can handle those details. But early on, it can be tough. So we need your help.
The only other issue I had is that it didn’t feel like there was enough conflict between Healy and March. This is always a sticky issue when you write a buddy-cop flick because, on the one hand, you don’t want to write another clichéd: two “cops” hate each other for no other reason than it leads to lots of conflict-fueled arguments!
But if you go away from this cliché, you run the risk of the relationship being bland. I mean sure, you can claim, “I didn’t do the cliché thing! Points for me!” But was it really worth it if we’re now bored by an uninspired relationship? I still haven’t figured out this balance. How does one write a genre where the very core rules of the genre are cliche, and then not make it cliche (I’d love to hear thoughts on this in the comments)?
Indeed, I felt like there was something left on the table between Healy and March. While they were definitely different characters, the longer the script went on, the more similar they felt. Maybe that’s because Black and Bagarozzi were looking to avoid the “clashing personalities” cliché. Maybe not. I don’t know. But I hope in subsequent drafts, they address it.
Anyway, regardless of its issues, The Nice Guys was a fun little script. Definitely worth reading. I mean, how can you say no to the newest/oldest Shane Black joint?
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Dialogue set ups and payoffs. Shane Black loves setups and payoffs. But he doesn’t only do it with his action. He’ll use the device in dialogue as well. This is a great way to get an easy laugh. For example, when March is forced to take Holly to a party to help them find Alice, they first walk in and see a bunch of sketchy characters. “Dad, there’s like, whores here and stuff.” March responds with, “Holly, how many times have I told you..? Don’t say, “and stuff.” Just say, “There are whores here.” Later on, Holly finds herself in a room watching porn with an overtly sexual redhead. Holly, working for her dad, casually asks the redhead if she’s seen Alice. “What’d she look like?” the redhead replies. “Well,” Holly says, “Sorta like that woman on TV, that kid’s show chick who died—“ “The one who just offed herself? That’s rad! She’s all, “remember kids, politeness counts,” meanwhile she’s like, doing anal and stuff.” Holly capitalizes on this: “Don’t say, “and stuff” – just say, “She’s doing anal.”
What I learned 2: What I’m about to tell you may be the most important advice you ever hear. Like, EVER, and stuff. I’m serious. Tape this to your wall. Tattoo it on your forehead. Ready? Never wait for this town (or for that matter, the world) to give you anything. If you want something, you will never have it unless you GO OUT AND GET IT. Black was in a downward slope in his career. If he would’ve kept writing scripts in his multi-million dollar basement, hoping for success again, I’m not sure we’d be hearing Black’s name today. Instead, he went out and MADE A MOVIE HIMSELF, which led to a relationship that would later turn him into one of the hottest directors in town. If I say it once, I’ll say it a thousand times: NEVER WAIT FOR ANYTHING. GO OUT AND GET IT.