Film Review: Mr. Nice

Drug dealer biopic wants to be a fun ride but is undone by hipper-than-thou direction and a maddeningly opaque central performance by Rhys Ifans.

Mr. Nice charts the life and career of Howard Marks (Rhys Ifans), former drug dealer and British counterculture hero, who went from upstanding Oxford student in the 1960s to supposedly controlling 10% of the world’s hashish sales. Along the way, he played all sides up the middle, partnering with everyone from Middle East gun runners to crazed IRA kingpin Jim McCann (David Thewlis), to Hamilton MacMillan (Christian McKay), an erstwhile classmate who recruited him as a freelance spy for the MI-5, the U.K.’s counterintelligence agency.

It’s a picaresque life and Rose‘s film is just that, careening with Marks through the very high highs of his times, as well as the lows, which included extensive prison stays. The film seems to be firmly on the side of marijuana legalization, but one just wishes it were a lot more actual fun. Rose’s direction, taking cues from everything from 1960s period psychedelia to the inevitable Trainspotting, is so determinedly busy that you never get fully caught up in the story, all that flashy technique keeping you at serious arm’s length. It’s a too-cool-for-school approach that works against the director, preventing the film from becoming any kind of definitive portrait of a fascinating, wild and woolly era. A typically monotonous Philip Glass score—although I’m sure some kind of coup for the filmmakers—merely adds to the glacial remove of it all.

As conceived and directed here, most of the actors seem to be having a better time than the audience will, playing these flamboyant characters with lip-smacking relish. Thewlis, in particular, always loves to be over-the-top nutty and McCann affords him ample opportunity to do so. (He even flashes the camera in close-up, in what may be a non-porno film first.) Reliably eccentric Crispin Glover, possibly doing a sly takeoff on the bottomed-out Joaquin Phoenix, also pops up as the ultimate L.A. sleazeball in yet another drug-addled chapter of Marks’ life. Ifans rather goes the other route, as if wishing to remain a stabilizing center to all the madness around him. But his flatly deadpan narration and largely tabula rasa, emotionless performance never let you see what really makes Marks tick. Chloë Sevigny, with a studied Brit accent, appears as his unbelievably loyal wife Judy, but her role consists mostly of her straddling Ifans for bouts of “wild sex” (although the film, riddled with nudity as it is, is anything but sexy), complaining about his activities and having endless babies.

A good portion of the dialogue is delivered so rapid-fire, often in impenetrable Brit, Welsh or Celtic accents, that subtitles—however woefully unhip—would have been a definite help.