SXSW Film: ‘Mr. Nice’

It’s about time Rhys Ifans — probably still best known as Hugh Grant’s peculiar roommate in Notting Hill — got himself a big, juicy whopper of a leading role. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. Mr. Nice, based on the true story of Welsh drug dealer and jack of many trades Howard Marks, starts out relatively strong, even carrying the absurdity of Ifans playing a high schooler. An ordinary kid who’s ecstatic to get into Oxford, Howard quickly discovers drugs (the film lights up with color as he takes his first toke) and, over the decades, becomes — somewhat accidentally — a wealthy drug runner with ties to both MI-6 and the IRA.

The latter is represented by David Thewlis, wild-haired and crazy-eyed as Jim McCann, who helps Marks get drugs into the U.K. after driving them in from continental Europe gets too dangerous. In L.A., Marks works with a bewigged, twitchy Crispin Glover; elsewhere, he deals with the manically unstable McCann; occasionally, as the years pass, he even spends some time with his wife, Judy (Chloe Sevigny), and children. Marks gets busted, gets out of trouble, lives a comfortable life and finds it boring, and eventually finds himself in even deeper shit than ever.

Part of the problem with Mr. Nice — which takes its name from one of Marks’ many pseudonyms — is that the endless sequences of Marks and company moving, packing, hiding or hiding drugs lead to a muddled, disconnected narrative that lacks emotional impact. There’s a more streamlined story in there somewhere, but writer-director-cinematographer-editor Bernard Rose (Immortal Beloved) hasn’t quite found it.

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Rose drops in period details and does a clever thing or two with stock footage, but the referential cinematography and clever production design can only take the film so far. The film’s final sequences, button-pushing though they occasionally are, are among its most effective: Marks in jail is not a pretty sight, and Rose’s somewhat worshipful view of him as a clever bastard doing his best to get around needless drug laws shifts just enough to turn Marks into a more interesting and sympathetic character. While the film’s repetitive storyline muffles Ifans’ usual charisma, Sevigny, her British accent slipping, does what she can with a woefully underwritten character. Judy appears over a board game, invitingly explains the rules of Go to Howard and quickly replaces his previous love interest. Once the relationship is established, she’s shuttled off to the sidelines, where her role is to be pregnant and disapproving for most of the rest of the film.

Mr. Nice opens with Marks speaking to a crowded theater; when it closes with a similar scene, it’s almost a surprise to be back in that space. The framing device — a reminder that Marks is a real person, still out there, still writing and telling his story — wedges more distance between the film and the audience. Our stand-ins, the crowd on the screen, rise up and applaud when Marks finishes his tale. We’re clearly meant to be inspired to follow suit, but the flat, jumbled Mr. Nice elicits no such response.

Mr. Nice does not yet have a release date.

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