Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jul 03, 2011 2:01 pm 
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One long high for a man, one little story for mankind

For this dramatization of the hard-to-believe autobiography of a notorious British drug smuggler and countercultural life-styler, Bernard Rose has come up with a rather unique cast. Rhys Ifans, Welsh and rakish like the film's protagonist Howard Marks, co-stars with an over-the-top David Thewlis as his IRA cohort and victim, Chloë Sevigny as his adorable and long-suffering companion and later wife, and the rare Crispin Glover as his cloyingly-pleasant Stateside ally in California. Truly a droll and unexpected group of actors. Rose also achieves a nice period quality both in the clothes and settings of the Sixties and Seventies segments of the film, and in the look of the film footage itself. If only Rose could have constructed his narrative a little better. Incidents are rushed, there is an effort to cram in too much, and the rhythm is sometimes off. This may not give the makers of Mesrine, Carlos or Cath Me If You Can a run for their money. But it's still an endlessly jaw-dropping tale that deserves to be included in the celluloid literature of bold and lucky criminals, particularly of the dodgy, identity-switching kind. Rhys Ifans hasn't often, if ever, gotten such prominent play in a film but he's always been the kind of actor you notice. Recently he's been particularly good in Pirate Radio and Greenberg. Ifans specializes in appealingly disreputable characters and plays the villain, The Lizard, in the new Spider Man movie. He's certainly right for this role.

Howard Marks started out in a way you'd hardly expect, but then his whole life is improbable. He comes from a Welsh mining town so obscure no Englishman has even heard of it, and he's the first of his townsmen to gain the privilege of studying at Oxford. He's as surprised as anyone that this should occur. And he actually gets a second class degree, despite having discovered the pleasures of hashish and indulged in them freely throughout his university years. For him being a dealer was simply obtaining more drugs than you yourself could quite manage to use. After Oxford, where he'd established a little band of friends, Marks found himself short of funds. He's cleaned up his act, is about to divorce and shack up with his girlfriend (Chloë Sevigny, with an English accent) and they both are schoolteahers. Then a friend suggests he drive a Mercedes loaded with hash down to England and a far more lucrative career is off and running.

Basically the story is that Marks becomes a moderately high level drug drug dealer, specializing in hashish, and at some point is recruited by MI5 to track the IRA arms trader Jim McCann (David Thewlis). Thewlis plays it broad and loud. His performance is either a caricature of a spot on picture of a nut case foolish enough to stay involved with a snitch. Anyway Marks and McCann work together, Marks dealing drugs, "the fiction," as the Irishman calls them, and McCann dealing arms, "the non-fiction," the real stuff as he sees it. The collaboration enables Marks to operate above the law because MI5 wants him to keep following the IRA, which they have found it very hard to infiltrate. Marks' lifestyle gives off the scent of pachouli mixed with whiskey and cigarette smoke. He wears stylishly cut long hair with Edwardian outfits. He's high much of the time but also always on the phone -- rural pay phones at first -- to his contacts in Germany and Pakistan. This is like a laid-back, half-comical version of the British miniseries Traffik, but set a decade or more earlier, when people are still inclined to look the other way and it was socially approved to look for an herbal high as part of a hip lifestyle. The film plays on this all the time, and it goes down smoothly because for much of the way Marks gets a free ride -- till things finally turn ugly and the cops come to get him in Mallorca, along with his wife and small children. Eventually British Intelligence no longer backs the man. His drug-dealing obviously goes beyond the needs of cover.

The lifestyle aspect is amusing, and Ifans is the man to carry it off for us. We may wonder how a man can remain so debonair when tons of junk are being shipped around. Things go awry immediately with Marks' googily cheerful California partner, Ernie Combs (Glover) when one disguised load gets left behind at an airport warehouse and exposes the whole shipment. Somehow we wonder if Marks didn't have to do more work than this, but he must have been a kind of genius. After all, he did manage a second class degree at Oxford while stoned out of his mind. Marks, who winds up traveling around in a van with his wife and kids for a while when his identity gets too hot, often uses the name of Mr. Nice. He also adopts dozens of other aliases and many more phone numbers. He makes very large amounts of money and deals with "bent" bankers and solicitors. As played charmingly by Chloë Sevigny, his wife Judy is perfectly wifely, caring for the children and often seen having sex with her husband, and always with pleasure. They also dress up and dine and party. But she does not want him to continue smuggling hash and when he does anyway, she pouts.

All the blithe escapes slip by, and what one tends to remember is the ugly Mallorca arrest with the screaming wife and kids in the background. It was Marks's American connection that brought him down: the DEA hauled him away and put him in jail in Terre Haute, Indiana for seven years, a longer sentence shortened for his good behavior as a teacher and jailhouse lawyer active in the rehabilitation of many other prisoners during his sojourn behind bars. The real life Marks has never stopped advocating the legalization of cannabis and his lighthearted autobiography, Mr. Nice, a big seller in Britain, is the basis for this screen version. The film is bookended by one of Marks' many current stage appearances as a speaker playing on his local celebrity to advocate pot.

Mr. Nice is great stuff if you like this sort of story or favor the drug lifestyle. It has brilliant moments and the acting, no matter how amped up, cannot be faulted. Where the film falls down in comparison to on screen depiction of bigger boys like Mesrine or Carlos or bolder imposters like Frank Abagnale Jr. as played by Leo DiCaprio is in a relative choppiness and lack of momentum in the storytelling, and a certain doubt about whether the practical details of the smuggling and selling have been dealt with as fully as they might. Bernard Rose, who has done 17 films, some of them celebrating Beethoven and Tolstoy, wrote, co-edited, and filmed this picture, which may mean he was just a bit overextended. But Ifans is perfect for the role of Marks and the other principals are fun to watch.

This film was released in the UK in October 2010, and has been on a selective tour of the US since June 4, 2011.

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