Based on the autobiography of Welsh-born, Oxford-educated drug trafficker Howard Marks, Mr. Nice is hampered by tonal timidity and the inability to find a sufficiently entertaining through-line in Marks' life story. Seemingly aware that his adaptation is lacking, writer-director Bernard Rose pushes a not-very-convincing case for the legalization of cannabis and other recreational drugs. He shouldn't hold his breath. Mr. Nice unreels on one New York City screen, in a municipality that recently outlawed cigarette smoking in public parks. The ban faced little opposition, which suggests the movie's subject matter—apart from its tepid, dime-bag execution—is unlikely to attract many paying customers.
Welshman Rhys Ifans stars as Marks, the mop-topped working-class bloke whose unlikely path to becoming an international dealer begins in the 1960s. After winning a scholarship to Oxford, the unworldly undergrad starts peddling hash almost by happenstance. In swinging London town, Howard meets love-of-his-life Judy (Chloë Sevigny, getting by with the thinnest of English accents) and abandons teaching to take up drug importation full-time. With a solid connection in Pakistan, he needs a better method of getting the stuff into the U.K.; crossing European borders in brick-stuffed cars is too risky. A volatile member of the Irish Republican Army (played to the hilt by David Thewlis) turns out to be the man for the job. Soon Marks is rolling in dough, making babies with Judy and planning to break into the U.S. market. An Oxford pal recruits him for the British spy service MI6, which gives him limited protection, but eventually the law catches up. The film's title is one of the identities he assumes while a fugitive.
The performances and tech credits are decent yet unexceptional. Unobtrusive music by Philip Glass is a plus. But Ifans' appearance doesn't change over the course of thirty-odd years and some clumsy digital insertions against period backdrops also undermine plausibility. The biggest problem with Mr. Nice is that Rose takes British understatement to an extreme. The mod jauntiness and droll levity he tries to tease out of Marks' story simply don't register. A few suspenseful sequences notwithstanding, there isn't much in the way of crime-drama thrills either. By emphasizing Marks' laid-back personality, Rose paints a portrait of a clever but harmless hippy. We never see him actually make a deal or do anything remotely unsavory, thus Mr. Nice lacks texture as well as style. The film's charisma deficit is not Ifans' fault, though he's nobody's idea of a leading man. In Rose's hands, Marks comes off as likeable but dull, even in the many shots where Sevigny's Judy is straddling him during lovemaking. And since all the hash he tokes onscreen doesn't make him a more colorful figure, it's doubtful Mr. Nice will blow anyone's mind if they watch it high. Hash may (or may not) broaden your consciousness, as Judy claims (while stoned), but this unassuming biopic definitely will not. Finally, a drug dealer's insouciant attitude toward the product he uses and sells isn't a very compelling argument for legalization. Nor is the idea that the "war on drugs" is misguided because it prevents people such as Howard Marks from enjoying a cushy lifestyle surrounded by adoring family members.
Distributor: MPI Media
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Chloë Sevigny, David Thewlis, Luis Tosar, Crispin Glover, Omid Djalili, Christian McKay, Elsa Pataky, Jack Huston
Director/Screenwriter: Bernard Rose
Producer: Luc Roeg
Genre: Biography/Crime Thriller
Running time: 121 min.
Release date: June 3 NY