Movies, and society as a whole, have struggled with how to portray drug dealers. The default showcase is the bloodthirsty villain, the person who is so one-dimensional as to think he knows what he’s doing is wrong, but does so anyway. But the cinema isn’t afraid to glamorize the profession either, showcasing the supplier as paradigm-busting rock star — the best cars, the best planes, the best fashion, with a sex partner on each arm. Few opportunities have been taken to redefine the drug dealer as someone with a job, someone who isn’t desperately obsessed with his rise and fall, or the media circus that may relate to his surroundings. Then again, the argument could be that there haven’t been any on-screen kingpins quite like Howard Marks, the renaissance man at the heart of “Mr. Nice.”
Marks, played by Rhys Ifans, comes to the world of narcotics from a curious direction, having worked his way up from his modest Welsh background into the world of academia. Director Bernard Rose begins Marks’ story in black and white, slowly allowing color to bleed into the image as Marks takes his first puff of marijuana. After a brief, collegiate flirtation with drugs, Marks attempts to go straight. What seems like a reasonable path to follow becomes obscured, as menial work and an unfaithful wife blur the illegal successes of his former acquaintances. When a favor is called in, it’s not long before Marks is knee-deep in the multinational hashish trade.
One of the jokes in this fairly straight-faced story involves the idea that “Mr. Nice” is almost dangerously subversive. Rarely have we had that dichotomy illustrated so clearly, the concept of the “wrong way” being far more fulfilling than the “right.” Though the drug trade proves more lucrative, Marks, so equipped for the academic world with his groundswell of book smarts, is almost in over his head with the convoluted deals which he is required to broker. Fortunately, multiple law enforcement agencies are there to assist and empower him in the service of bagging bigger fish, resulting in Marks working underneath federal protection multiple times.
Ifans is a capable lead, but his performance (where he plays Marks as a young teen and college student, a miscalculated gamble) is mostly colorless and drab as he fades into the background through a sea of pot haze. Through Ifans, the impression we get of Marks, himself a charismatic minor celebrity overseas, is of an articulate but reserved businessman, one who occasionally pays lip service to the idea that he is living a fantasy. More appropriately bombastic is Marks’ IRA-affiliated associate Jim McCann, played by a wily David Thewlis. Living on a farm and distanced from regular society, McCann overflows with conspiracy theories and an ill temper, both enthusiastic about his riches and rudely dismissive about their origins.
Chloe Sevigny provides able support as Marks’ level-headed second wife, while Crispin Glover is caustic and squirrely (as always) in a supporting role as an American associate. But the film works for the most part because of the literate approach by director Bernard Rose. An underestimated journeyman, Rose approaches the story of “Mr. Nice” from a distance, showing almost no interest in the comfort of debauchery in the face of a family life and solitude. Rose adheres to concessions of the genre a bit too much, and his overuse of voiceover reminds you that Marks is still alive and well, and probably had a hand in shaping the film’s content. As such, like Rose’s other films, there is a baroque appeal to the grotesqueries of this true-crime narrative, leavened by an intellectual distance that favors sharp irony over overt laughs or maudlin truths — a moment at a checkpoint where police tear apart Marks’ vehicle in search of narcotics manages to be memorable for Ifans’ sly smirk and knowing acknowledgment that such efforts are a waste of time against an international war.
Rose, who has been lost in the cinematic wilderness for awhile now, isn’t exactly the best match for the material. His scope befits his first collaboration with composer Philip Glass since cult horror classic “Candyman,” but the film, which globe-hops frequently, feels compromised by budgetary issues, with a significant amount of scenes happening in smaller areas or, more damningly, inefficient green screen. Some of the more intimate moments work visually in order to establish how Marks behaves as if he isn’t trapped on all sides. Others add to a cheapness that detracts from the reality of the moment. But perhaps that’s the point Rose is trying to make after all: it’s not the reality that Marks seeks, it’s the struggle with his own intellect to embrace the unreality. [B]