First Draft: Lessons in Plotting Film Noir, From The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski and The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys (2016)

Now let’s return to The Nice Guys. This takes a similar approach to The Big Lebowski; it too follows a mismatched pair, one lazy and one bullish, who are well out of their depth in an increasingly complex case. Though the plot again incorporates the Los Angeles porn scene, this time it’s as part of a conspiracy that goes all the way up to the bigwigs of the American motor industry and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Black and Bagarozzi’s script is another example of astute plotting. The inciting incident which sets off March’s story comes when he’s employed by the aunt of supposedly murdered porn star Misty Mountains, who believes she has seen her niece alive and well through the window of a house. Believing the aunt is mistaken, March takes the case anyway and searches for Amelia, the girl he thinks was in the house instead of Misty. This leads to him meeting Healy and the two of them stumbling deeper and deeper into the conspiracy.

Shortly after the film’s “all is lost” point, when Healy and March have been double-crossed and Amelia has been killed, the two protagonists finally put the pieces together: The short-sighted aunt had in fact seen a projection of Misty’s film, an experimental protest/porno film intended to bring down the car industry.

Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy and Margaret Qualley as Amelia Kuttner in The Nice Guys. Photograph by Daniel McFadden

The scene where they figure this out is, in terms of plot development, very satisfying, as all the clues planted early on come together, and the heroes’ deduction propels them into the third act. But the scene ends on a comic moment. As March and Healy have been discussing how all these pieces fit together, they’ve forgotten to tell Misty’s aunt, standing right next to them, that her niece is now confirmed dead. This comic subversion of the detective trope hints at the true focus of the film.

Which is that, despite the conspiracy story, the film’s intent is not political—viewers are not meant to leave the cinema feeling angry towards the car industry or the government. We’re much more likely to be thinking about the best jokes as we walk out, or the powerful character stories, or even about how Gosling and Crowe make a surprisingly good buddy cop double act.

The Nice Guys‘ plot, as it has been in its film noir antecedents, is the surface detail, and Chandler’s “sound story value”—what we’re really meant to engage with—comes through the atmosphere, the characters, and the comedy.

This leaves us with the feeling that there is an odd dichotomy at work in these three films, and indeed in the film noir and comedy-noir genres. The convoluted, spiraling plot is an important part of the stories, and it’s important that writers of these genres put the work into structuring that plot, with set-ups and pay-offs, and moments where characters and viewers alike deduce the truth. Yet, as Joel Coen so bluntly put it, these plots are “ultimately unimportant.”

Writers should not be fooled into thinking plot is everything, but should nonetheless see it as part of the fabric of the film noir genre, part of the very particular world that their screenplay should build, with every twist and turn serving character and atmosphere as much as it serves progression toward the next one. MM

fbbanner (2)This article originally appeared on the website Creative Screenwriting. Creative Screenwriting is “the best magazine for screenwriters” (The Los Angeles Times), publishing daily interviews and craft articles from the foremost writers in film and TV.

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