Ryan Gosling is a great actor. He may even deserve an Oscar this year. Perhaps he’ll get one — but probably not, since his name isn’t Casey Affleck. But on the off-chance that he does stumble onto the stage of L.A.’s Dolby Theatre in a week-plus, he’ll be singing the praises of “La La Land” (but hopefully not actually singing, since he’s merely OK at that). In a just world, he’d be thanking Shane Black and Russell Crowe, the writer-director and co-star of “The Nice Guys,” in which Gosling gave the second finest male lead performance of 2016 (after, of course, Casey Affleck). Alas, it's not only a comedy, but an action-comedy, and the Academy doesn't do either, let alone both put together.
This hot take is no slight on The Gosling’s turn in “La La Land.” We won’t even make fun of how he looks at his feet during dance numbers. But what is Oscar-worthy about the performance except that it was front and center in a movie that’s made people a little too crazy? Apart from a bit where he plays keytar, it’s Gosling in laconic movie star mode, either looking suave or brooding up a storm. He can do that in his sleep. And you know what? Screw it — no performer should even be nominated for a musical in which he or she looks at their feet while dancing. That’s an immediate disqualification.
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Meanwhile, in “The Nice Guys,” Gosling battles a bathroom stall door with the grace and precision of a silent movie god. He does a mean Lou Costello raspy howl. He struggles to drunkenly pronounce “Baryshnikov.” He cries like a banshee being electrocutedas Russell Crowe gives him a spinal fracture of the left radius. He tries to bribe a bartender with a bill origami’d into a shirt. He positively murders the line, “I had to question the mermaids!”
Not to box Gosling in — variety, after all, is the spice of life — but the best Gosling is funny Gosling. He’ll give you that “Hey girl” stare if you want, but he’s secretly a weirdo. You don’t always see that, but it’s there. When we spoke to him circa “The Nice Guys,” Gosling a) deadpanned a joke about singing “End of the Road” to us over the phone (“all four parts”), and b) said that he always slips in weird funny moments, even when the film is deadly serious. Only “Half-Nelson” kept such bits in the final cut. And so this earnest and po-faced indie, in which Gosling is amazing as a teacher-cum-crack addict, is peppered with odd asides, like the dorky calculator watch Gosling insisted on wearing, and the loud American flag Band-Aid he puts over his split lip after one of the more dramatic encounters.
We’d like to see more of this Gosling. He’s terrific in “Half-Nelson,” but we’d make a case that he’s even better in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” an unusually inspired rom-com in which he parodies his own movie star status while looking like a goddamned movie star. He has his cake and eats it, too. With that film he was saying, “I could be six feet of handsome. But I don’t want to. I’m too f—ing weird — kind of like what you imagine Cary Grant was like when he was tripping his balls off on acid.”
Keytar bit aside, “La La Land” makes Gosling play the movie star crossed with an anguished Method actor like Brando. That’s fine. But him Whitesplaining jazz (to John Legend) or mooning over Emma Stone has got nothing on the "Nice Guys" bit in which Gosling tries to throw a pistol to Russell Crowe, accidentally hurls it through a window, then shrieks “S—!” in a falsetto.
Apart from being a highly rewatchable, absurdly quotable detective romp — that was, of course, criminally ignored by audiences last May — “The Nice Guys” understands peak Gosling. Playing a disheveled hot mess of a ’70s detective investigating a byzantine missing person’s case, he goes all in. He doesn’t zone out on his good looks or stare at his feet.
At one point,Gosling playfully pretends to be shot at a party. He drunkenly stumbles back a few feet towards a balcony ledge. When he goes over, he throws his entire body into it. He doesn’t look at what he’s doing, how hurt he may get; he just does it, with reckless abandon, killing himself for a big laugh. He’s perfectly coupled with Crowe’s grizzled, glowering P.I. — Crowe’s a genius here, too — but Gosling’s is the kind of performance that will be studied, but never equaled, for decades to come. Hell, maybe he really is better than Casey Affleck.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge