A toke, a laugh, then a downfall
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Sep 09, 2011
In the United States, movie directors favor tales of Scarface, Dillinger and the Godfather. In Wales, the cinematic outlaw of choice is Mr. Nice.
That's one of 43 aliases used by Howard Marks, an Oxford-educated marijuana and hashish smuggler who chose "Mr. Nice" as the title of his witty 1996 memoir. The name suits him because he didn't deal harder drugs, never carried a weapon and kept his sense of humor throughout his illicit escapades.
This is not "Traffic" or "Trainspotting." Marks's autobiography is mostly comic, and so is Bernard Rose's adaptation. The writer-director tells the story with verve and small-budget ingenuity (as when he playfully inserts actors into archival footage).
Working-class and whip smart, Marks discovers pot (and sex and acid rock) soon after he leaves his coal-mining hometown in the mid-'60s. He starts trafficking when a pal gets busted in Germany, leaving a drug shipment in limbo. Soon Marks is hooked - not on dope, but on adventure. He also enjoys proving he's smarter than everyone else, especially the posh types who sniff at his background.
Marks's book was never published in the United States, and most Americans are unfamiliar with his cult status in Britain. It's amusing to know that some of Marks's fake passport photos appear on the cover of the first Super Furry Animals album. Rhys Ifans, who plays Marks in "Mr. Nice," was an early member of that neo-psychedelic band.
Even without that connection, Ifans would be the logical choice for the part. He has the accent and much experience playing strutting, shaggy-haired buccaneers ("Pirate Radio"). He neatly conveys Marks's amused detachment from the drug trade, even when he gets involved with such madmen as a porn-addict IRA member (David Thewlis) who uses his cohorts' arms-smuggling contacts to sneak hash into Ireland.
Ifans and Thewlis have most of the fun. Playing Judy, Marks's wife, Chloe Sevigny struggles with a British accent in a role that doesn't give her much else to do. And a bearded Crispin Glover is surprisingly low- key as Marks's L.A. contact.
The two-hour movie has room for less than an ounce of Marks's multi-kilo exploits, so "Mr. Nice" skips large chunks of the story with voice-over comments such as "the next six years were the best of my life." That means it arrives too soon at the worst years of Marks's life, which begin when he's sent to a maximum-security prison in the United States.
Marks has to end up behind bars, of course, and not just because that's what really happened. It's just a bummer to get there so soon. The movie's first half is hilarious, but the book has a lot more laughs on the way to its author's downfall.
Contains nudity, sexual situations, profanity and loads of drugs.