MR. NICE – The Review
MR. NICE is an odd film. An odd film, but also ultimately, mostly boring. Written and directed by the talented, eclectic filmmaker Bernard Rose (IMMORTAL BELOVED, CANDYMAN), this film falls shy of what I believe the film could have achieved. MR. NICE is the adult life story of Howard Marks, a British dope smuggler, based on Marks’ autobiography.
Rhys Ifans (GREENBERG, PIRATE RADIO) plays Howard Marks, operating within the elite sector of the drug trade, but gets in his own way as a dealer due to his own habitual use and relative ignorance. Despite being based on a true story, MR. NICE plays more like a low-key farce. The film isn’t riddled with laughter-inducing moments, but I found myself constantly thinking this is too strange to be true, but we all know what they say about truth being stranger than fiction. Unfortunately, strange does not allows equate to interesting.
The film begins in black and white, shot with the intent to evoke archival footage, even playing framed by a television set mock-up. Only when Howard Marks meets his future wife, does the image transition to color for the remainder of the film. MR. NICE fluctuates between styles, occasionally returning to the archival footage effect, other times taking on a more spontaneous and immediate live cinema verite approach. At other moments, the camera takes on a very calculated existence, steady and geometrically even, complete with dolly and crane shots. In the same fashion, the time-line of Marks’ adult life goes through a series of speed adjustments, lingering on some periods of his story while carelessly blowing through others.
Howard Marks nearly gets kicked out of Oxford for drug use, but skates on a lack of evidence. He graduates and becomes a teacher, only to be lured back into the drug smuggling trade by the almighty pound, or dollar for we Americans. He marries Judy, played by Chloe Sevigny (BARRY MUNDAY, ZODIAC), a fellow pot-smoking free spirit, whom has a rather small and insignificant role in the film. MR. NICE marks one of her more forgettable, shall I say “less colorful” roles.
Keeping with this trend of unusually usual performances, Crispin Glover (ALICE IN WONDERLAND, WILLARD) plays Ernie Combs, a drug kingpin who takes Howard under his wing in California. David Thewlis (THE OMEN, several HARRY POTTER films) plays a drunken, unevenly hotheaded IRA revolutionary named Jim McCann, who agrees to a business relationship with Howard Marks. Relative newcomers Christian McKay and Jack Huston round out this unique cast of under-appreciated actors.
As we’re whisked through Marks’ varied and peculiar experiences and connections to the likes of the CIA and the mafia, there is a constant sense of wanting more, or better, or bigger. MR. NICE is not a bad film, but rather it’s just not a film executed at it’s full potential. Despite these seemingly harsh words, I did not hate the film. There are many redeeming elements to this quirkier than expected biopic, such as the recurring score from Philip Glass, an entirely mind-boggling but fitting choice, especially when it shows up during earlier scenes of Marks’ drug highs and trips.
Overall, I found MR. NICE to be enjoyable, but dull and uninspired. There is an interesting story lying somewhere within the script. Perhaps we need to read the book itself, but the film never successfully translates what must have been a frequent and real sense of danger during Marks’ many colorful stories. If not for the film’s basis in real life, I would not have experienced MR. NICE in quite the same forgiving tone, but the biographical context, a strong finish, the wonderful cast and Philip Glass’ score made all the difference.
MR. NICE opens in St. Louis on Friday, July 29th at Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre.