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Saturday, September 17, 2011

'Mr. Nice's' drug-dealing biopic goes up in smoke

JOINT CHIEF: Rhys Ifans as Mr. Nice
  • Contender Entertainment Group
  • JOINT CHIEF: Rhys Ifans as 'Mr. Nice'
Craggy-faced Welsh actor Rhys Ifans plays the pot-peddling title character of the biopic Mr. Nice from his teens through his 50s. Before taking the alias “Mr. Nice” as England’s most wanted hash dealer, Howard Marks attended Oxford University, so the film’s early scenes drop gangly, fortyish Ifans among schoolboys. It’s a little jarring, but Ifans looks so much like a British rock star of the era — a Kink or a Rolling Stone — that the anachronism doesn’t derail the movie.

Mr. Nice’s childhood sequences take place in black and white, so they suggest that Marks envisions his grown self in the memories of his youth. When Marks smokes his first joint in the dormitories, warm colors thaw the monochromatic chill, as if Marks finally sees the world clearly through a haze of hashish. As he explains, “I didn’t set out to be a dope dealer. The thing is, a dealer is someone who buys more dope than he can smoke.”

Based on Marks’ 1995 memoir Mr. Nice, the amiable dramedy follows its antihero as he rises and falls on the tides of the international drug trade. Writer-director Bernard Rose (probably most famous for the original Candyman) has a sharp eye for criminal secrets as Marks initially smuggles dope from Germany to England when a friend gets arrested, then finds a flair for the work. His connections eventually range from Pakistani poppy farmers to an IRA terrorist (David Thewliss) to a sketchy California connection (Crispin Glover, easily mistaken for Steve Zahn). When Marks makes connections with British Intelligence, the film feels stranger than fiction, although the viewer doesn’t necessarily trust Marks’ version of the truth.

Coming across as naughty rather than nefarious, Ifans makes a casually charismatic Marks, who narrates the film as if he’s swapping stories over drinks at the pub. He conveys pride in his black market innovations, like shipping hash from the U.K. to the states in a rock band’s speakers. (“I love the Floyd” remarks an oblivious customs agent.) Marks feels stricken when his illegal activities catch up to him, separating him from his wife (Chloe Sevigny) and brood of children.

Marks never comes across as particularly self-reflexive in Mr. Nice and doesn’t seem to learn very much over the course of the film. The movie seems comfortable with Marks’ argument that marijuana, as a harmless recreational drug, should be legal, allowing him to justify his lucrative, multinational drug ring in the name of civil disobedience. The idea of Marks as a folk hero to the pro-hemp crowd seems a little pat, especially given his proximity to IRA arms dealing.

Ifans and Thewliss make amusing foils, with mellow Marks contrasting with the militant, paranoid Irish Republican. The 1970s period details don’t always ring true — you’ll hear faltering accents and see improbable sideburns — and at a full two hours, Mr. Nice lacks a sense of consequence. Despite its quirky yarns and Ifans’ easy command of the screen, Mr. Nice’s fails to get its audience particularly high.

Mr. Nice. 2 stars. Directed by Bernard Rose. Stars Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny. Rated R. Opened Fri., Sep. 16. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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