Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mr. Nice Movie Review

Bernard Rose was present at the Seville European Film Festival earlier this month presenting his film, Mr. Nice. He comes across like Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty in Stnaley Kubrick’s Lolita, not only by his physical appearance with thick black hair and slight stature, but also in his speaking style and mannerisms, including his frequent adjustment of his horn rimmed glasses.

He introduced his film by prefacing it with his view that drugs should be legal and that people shouldn’t have to languish in prison for years because they take drugs recreationally. He also made sure to draw a distinction between what he considers to be two separate issues: the question of legality on the one hand and of addiction on the other. Any reasonable person should have no trouble agreeing to that, but Rose’s film fails to adequately address the second.

Normally I wouldn’t find fault with that except in the case where I have the opportunity to hear the director state for himself what his intention was. Mr. Nice deals solely with the issue of criminalization of drug possession, distribution, and use.

And let’s be clear about something else – Howard Marks (Rhys Ifans), whose autobiography serves as the basis for the film, was not a modest drug user. He was an international trafficker, moving huge quantities of hash between the Middle East, the USA, and Europe.

He started his life simply and honestly enough as a 1960s Welsh teenager working hard to be accepted at Oxford. Rose presents the opening scenes in grainy black and white. They’re obviously meant to play as a bit of farce as Ifans looks ridiculous playing a kid. But something about it works probably because it’s told through his narration of events. He’s projecting himself into the images.

His first introduction to marijuana is in his dormitory when he sees a door open and a haze of smoke billows out. He soon joins the party and it’s not long after that they film shifts to color as drugs show him a world never before experienced.

These university party scenes are depicted as Bacchanalian excess replete with trippy music, vivid colors and naked women. Rose based his screenplay not only on Marks’ autobiography, but also on his personal conversations with him. He assured the audience that everything in the film is true – or at least that’s what Marks said. Somehow I think some has been embellished for dramatic effect.

The way he eventually transitions from heavy recreational user to international smuggler and trafficker is a bit of an accident. But when he gets a taste for the money involved he quickly gets himself set up with a complex business of moving drugs covertly across borders and then selling it off in England and in Ireland through a connection to IRA thug Jim McCann (David Thewlis), who, despite the IRA’s strict rejection of drugs as a means of earning money, sees it as a quick way to secure arms in their struggle against their British oppressors.

Of course Marks has time on the side for other recreational activities in addition to drugs. He marries his first wife, Ilze (Elsa Pataky) just after university, but the marriage is short-lived and he soon meets the woman who would eventually become his wife and mother to two of his three children, Judy (Chloe Sevigny). Judy became the rock by his side who stuck with him through criminal trials and her own two year prison sentence in Florida.

The film as a whole feels a bit episodic and really drags on in the final stages. It’s probably overlong by about ten minutes. I suppose the episodic nature could be the result of the structure of the source material. It tries to pack so much in that there’s hardly any room for the Spanish actor Luis Tosar, who plays the law enforcement agent who set up the investigation that ultimately takes Marks down and leads to his arrest at home in Palma, Majorca. It’s a role that would normally be filled by a relative unknown actor, but his inclusion along with Pataky’s is likely the result of Spanish co-financing.

Ifans fills the role of Howard Marks magnificently and he’s honestly the highlight of this mediocre effort. Ifans brings a unique quality to all of his roles. He seems so at ease with himself but also just slightly uncomfortable in his own skin. He can do drama as effortlessly as he does comedy, but manages to tinge all his scenes with the impression that it could turn into a laugh riot at any moment. These are essential qualities for this part to show a man constantly walking a high wire trying to keep himself out of jail while providing a more than comfortable life for himself and his family.

Rose quite obviously sympathizes with this man, but his film doesn’t really work hard enough to make the case for decriminalization. In essence it seems to be more about how you can’t necessarily count on your friends when things get really tough. He was eventually convicted on the testimony of his confederates, including his accountant who helped hide his money, and his Los Angeles connection, Ernie Combs (an under utilized Crispin Glover).
The film strikes the right tone, maintaining that balancing act along with its star. There’s certainly something inherently amusing about a bunch of hippie stoners running an international smuggling ring. These aren’t the kind of drug trafficker’s we’re used to seeing. But as a tale of a man struggling to find his way in a world that doesn’t accept his chosen profession, Mr. Nice is too often languid. As a political statement, it simply doesn’t do enough to support its own thesis.

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