The Nice Guys
★★★ ½

The Meddler

Neighbors 2:
Sorority Rising

Opening Friday, May 20, 2016

Hollywood in the 1970s is not just the seamy backdrop for The Nice Guys. It’s the uproarious foreground of the buddy action comedy, which smartly borrows from its genre forerunners—an homage giddily reflected in a funhouse mirror. The narrative is immersed in the adult film milieu of 1977 Los Angeles, accented by such era touchstones as smog alerts, The Waltons, and the hysteria over killer bees.

As a boy ogles a nude centerfold featuring a porn actress named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), the pinup model crashes her car through his home and ends up splayed on the front lawn in the same topless pose. Misty’s aunt, insisting she spied her niece alive through her Coke-bottle spectacles, hires hard-luck private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) to find the fading porn star. New no-fault divorce laws have put a heavy dent in the detection business, so March takes the seemingly useless case.

Assisted by his thirteen-year-old daughter and Girl Friday (Angourie Rice), March’s investigation leads to a Black Dahlia doppelganger named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a porn-movie aspirant under the protection of hired heavy Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), who first greets March by breaking his wrist, and who may or may not enjoy the violent requirements of his vocation. When Amelia suddenly falls off the grid, the disreputable duo forms an uneasy alliance to locate her and uncover why she’s also the target of a trio of paid killers.

Whereas Chinatown was inspired by the California Water Wars, this twisty L.A. crime caper eventually centers on a conspiracy among the Big Three automakers to kill catalytic converter emission standards. March’s copious Hitler non sequiturs echo the anti-Nazi propaganda found in the Powell and Pressburger noirs of the 1940s. The casting of Crowe and Kim Basinger, who plays Amelia’s mother and a Justice Department chief, suggests a sidelong spiritual sequel to the 1950s-set L.A. Confidential, in which both actors costarred.

Like the previous comedies of writer-director Shane Black (creator of the Lethal Weapon series), the madcap performances of the dual leads carry the film, which is most closely akin in tone to Black’s 2005 neo-noir comedy, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Gosling and Crowe, their flop sweat sometimes showing, appear as unkempt as the film’s extraneous scenes. But their unabashed Abbott and Costello pastiche is laden with wisecracks and physical gags that uniformly hit their mark. With its sharp repartee and byzantine plot, The Nice Guys is Raymond Chandler meets the Marx Brothers. In other words, it’s a hoot and a half.

Modern-day Los Angeles is the setting for The Meddler, a more genteel dramatic comedy that, if nothing else, reconfirms the acting ability of Susan Sarandon when she’s given meaty material and a starring vehicle.

Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini, an aging widow who, two years after the death of her husband, has moved from Brooklyn to L.A. to live closer to her daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne), a struggling screenwriter. As Marnie increasingly interferes in Lori’s personal life, including her on-again-off-again romance with a popular movie actor (Jason Ritter), a wide gulf open between them.

Marnie soon channels her time and inheritance toward her newfound L.A. diversions, including volunteering at a local hospital, lending car rides to her preferred helper at the Apple Genius Bar (Jerrod Carmichael), and financing and planning a lavish ceremony for Lori’s friend (SNL’s Cecily Strong) and her wife to renew their marriage vows.

In keeping with its obvious title, The Meddler is comfortably charming. Any episodes of tension, like Lori’s sudden “pregnancy” and her new bumbling boyfriend (Billy Magnussen), are resolved in short order. When Marnie scarfs down a bag of weed to hide it from the police, it leads to jail only when a stoned Marnie violates state law by scattering her husband’s ashes in the ocean surf.

There’s little explanation why Marnie treats a well-meaning, would-be suitor (Michael McKean) like a leper. But she does take a shine to Randy Zipper (J.K. Simmons), a Harley-riding ex-cop who handles security on a movie set Marnie inadvertently crashes, only to find recurring work as an extra. However saccharine her storyline, writer-director Lorene Scafaria fashions a believable love-loathe relationship between a mother and daughter, complemented by the performances by Sarandon and Byrne.

On the other hand, Byrne spends the outset of Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising having sex with Seth Rogen before vomiting on his face. This ignominious opening to a pointless sequel finds Mac Radner (Rogen) and wife, Kelly (Byrne), expecting their second child before a move to the suburbs. But during the thirty-day escrow period preceding the sale of their current house, a cadre of college coeds, led by sassy Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz), moves in next door.

They’re intent on launching a new sorority named Kappa Nu, built upon the proposition of gender equality. To them, that means throwing all-night, profane parties, just like their frat counterparts, and selling weed to pay the rent. When Mac and Kelly try to deep-six the sorority, fearing their prospective home buyers will pull out, the sisters respond by looting their neighbors’ house, lounging in bikinis on their front lawn, and hurling used tampons at their windows. Initially enlisted to aid Kappa Nu’s startup, Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) teams with his old nemeses Mac and Kelly after the sorority kicks him out of the house, also the site of Teddy’s raucous fraternity in Neighbors.

To the extent that there’s a feminist undercurrent in Neighbors 2, it’s that women can star in boorish, brain-dead comedies, too. The insipid plot commits the further sin of lacking internal logic—why would an eviction notice for nonpayment of rent be served on tenants within the first month of occupancy, much less one somehow procured by their neighbors in a day’s time? The entire film revolves around mindless recurring gags featuring marijuana, Efron’s physique, and Mac and Kelly’s toddler using a dildo as a plaything. These people don’t need a realtor; they need a visit from Child Protective Services.