FILM REVIEW: Mr. Nice (2010)

Mr. Nice (UK, 2010)
Directed by Bernard Rose
Starring Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny, David Thewlis, Crispin Glover

Western cinema is often accused of presenting a 'Hollywood version' of reality, glamorising the gritty and turning the important into the frivolous. While the truth of this statement varies from film to film, there are two subjects which have been unduly 'Hollywood-ised' more than any other: drugs and pornography. For every Boogie Nights, there are a dozen films like The Moguls and I Want Candy which have little or no credibility with regard to their subject matter. And for every Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream, you'll get a dozen films like Mr. Nice.
Bernard Rose's take on the autobiography of drug baron Howard Marks should have made for quite an interesting film. Quite apart from his prolific career running hashish to Britain and the US, Marks was apparently approached to spy for MI6 and got himself involved in the dark dealings of the IRA. But as Marks' remarkable story plays out, you find yourself becoming slowly disconnected from what is happening, becoming frustrated by the performances and the film's opinion of this Welsh rogue.

On the good side, Mr. Nice has some interesting visual touches which set it apart from the likes of Blow and Alpha Dog. Rose has always been a strong visual artist, and in this he uses digital technology to insert the characters into stock footage of Britain in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. This practice may be relatively common, but it's done so seamlessly that you can't help wondering whether it was done digitally, or whether Rose managed to find a few lost corners of London and then shoot them on deliberately degraded stock. In an added twist, the central character remains roughly the same age throughout - we see him inhabiting his past selves in the classroom and playground, in the manner of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.There are also a number of moments in which the comedy works, the best of these being where Marks is stopped by customs and his car is taken apart to be searched. After a bit of banter with the customs officers, Marks looks around as it emerges that they won't find any hashish in the lining of his car. He makes eye contact with an elderly lady who is waved through; she tips her passport to him, and we realise where the stuff is really hiding. Scenes like this and the confusing codenames for the drugs are pleasant, knowing riffs on The French Connection and its successors.

The structure of Mr. Nice is not that of a standard biopic. It may proceed in a linear fashion, beginning with Marks winning a place at Oxford and ending up with his release from prison, but it doesn't feel like a straightforward adaptation of a memoir. Like the recent Ian Dury biopic, Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, Mr. Nice is told in more of a cabaret style, a collection of anecdotes and fragments from an insanely eventful life. The film is bookended by Marks walking out on stage at an unnamed theatre to do a gig, and asking: "Are there any plain-clothed policeman in tonight?"But it is here, in this device, that the flaws with the film begin to come to the surface. Even as biopics go, Mr. Nice is massively hagiographic, relying so heavily on the charm of the central character that the second our sympathy wavers we never properly settle back into the story. Regardless of how he was in real life, the Howard Marks presented in Mr. Nice is a lovable rogue, whose involvement in drugs began almost by accident and whose career was apparently motivated by little more than wanting to provide for his loved ones.

Having the cabaret set-up gives the distinct impression that the version of events that we are seeing has been cleverly rehearsed. Like a stand-up comic perfecting his routine, Marks talks up the bits that get our sympathy, glosses over the ones that don't and always goes for a laugh over something more shocking or substantial. What we are seeing is a character, not the man himself, just as Peter Sellers would constantly slip into different characters while being interviewed. The difference is that Sellers genuinely didn't know who he was: the fact that the act was not voluntary made him emotionally compelling. Marks, meanwhile, knows full well who he is but is reluctant to tell you anything. By keeping his cards so close to his chest, he puts up a barrier between us and him, and eventually we give up trying to understand him.The film merits a very unflattering comparison with Notorious, the biopic of rapper Notorious B.I.G. (as opposed to the Alfred Hitchcock film). Both films focus on characters with some involvement in drugs, but present them as being so bizarrely innocent and unfortunate that they became little more than pantomime caricatures of 'good citizens'. The problem is not that the real life Howard Marks or Biggie Smalls weren't perhaps victims of circumstance - the problem is that the film conveys this in such a suspect way, that we start to question the credibility of their story.

The film's biggest failure, like Notorious, is that it fails to present a solid moral case, one way or the other. There are numerous lines where Marks complains that "the law is wrong" and that cannabis shouldn't be illegal. And the film doesn't entirely demonise the police as being backward, uptight, sexually-repressed fascists, who want to take the country back to the days of wartime discipline. But this viewpoint is never properly developed into a coherent case. Most of the time the film is a carefree romp full of people rolling around getting stoned and having sex; perhaps a more fitting title would have been Carry On Dealing.This light-hearted tone becomes so overbearing that it prevents the film from being dark enough when it really needs to be. The scenes of Marks hitting rock bottom in prison, getting shingles and having his teeth pulled out, are shot in the same gruesome, full-on style that worked so well on Candyman. But they feel tacked-on, like Rose had forgotten to show the downside to Marks' lifestyle and was attempting to cut his losses. Even the scene where Marks is about to be kneecapped by an IRA gunman is poorly done: it's briefly tense, but it then transpires it was all a joke, and everyone walks away laughing, except for us.The performances are also a complete mixed bag. Rhys Ifans can be a good actor - think of his performance as Peter Cook in the TV film Not Only, But Always. But his performance as Howard Marks, as a Welsh, womanising vagabond who enjoys a smoke and a drink, is not that much of a stretch. Chloe Sevigny's character is very underwritten: she spends most of her time telling Ifans to stop dealing drugs, and yet she never has the courage to leave him. On the up side, Christian McKay is very good as the MI6 operative, and Crispin Glover makes the best he can of the American stoner. But the best performance, by a mile, is David Thewlis as crazed IRA operative Jim McCann. Despite a completely unnecessary shot of his member about an hour in, he dominates the screen, spitting venom and creating havoc wherever he goes.Mr. Nice is a deeply unsatisfying account of Howard Marks' life, which has little of interest to say about either the ethics of drugs or the elaborate means of transporting them. As Bill Bailey once said, marijuana and cogent political debate do not mix; every time the film attempts to get on a pedestal and say something meaningful, it collapses into an embarrassing, giggling heap. Rose has done a decent job with the visuals, and every time David Thewlis is on screen it's worth watching. But otherwise it's a biopic with no real purpose or direction, occasionally entertaining but always underwhelming.

Rating: 2/5
Verdict: An aimless, rose-tinted failure


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