Lying on the golden beach of Koh Tao, Thailand, in the sweltering heat of last December, I was totally absorbed in Howard Marks’ life story Mr. Nice. His autobiography emulated such wit and sparkle and wove such a fascinating story that I was still turning pages well after the sun went down. So I was understandably more than excited about the DVD release of Bernard Rose’s film adaptation of the same name. Unfortunately, I finished the film with an overall feeling of being profoundly underwhelmed.
Mr. Nice (2010) introduces Marks as an affable and unassuming schoolboy. Marks excels in school and gains a place at Oxford, where he stumbles across his first hash experience. From here, the black and white footage diminishes as he tokes for the first time, exhaling in glorious Technicolour. From here onwards, we see Marks move into the world of drug smuggling following the arrest of a friend, and finds himself wrapped up with IRA terrorists, Afghan drug lords, and MI6 ‘spooks’.
Rhys Ifans, as predicted, is perfect for the role, exuding a quiet confidence whilst observing life with modest amusement. No other performance really stands up next to it, although arguably David Thewlis’ portrayal of IRA terrorist Jim McCann is somewhat of an audience divider. Perhaps my own memory of the book’s version of McCann is to blame for my dismissal, but I felt Thewlis overplayed the paranoia and the fiery temper up until the point where you wonder what the hell Marks was thinking of getting involved with a nutcase like him. A directorial fault, perhaps, but the performance was far from convincing.
In addition, Chloe Sevigny faced criticism for not making enough of her role as Judy (Howard’s former wife) but what could she have done with so little to work with? For me, Mr. Nice’s major downfall is the abundance of time wasted on lingering looks of affection between Howard and Judy, omitting far more absorbing and enthralling plot strands encompassing Marks’ incredible life.
All the things that really grabbed me about the original Mr Nice text; all the sparkle, wit and crazy coincidences; the amusing anecdotes and remarkable off-the-point observations; were either left on the cutting room floor or completely forgotten.What about the resulting fallout of one of his ill-fortuned LSD trips, hanging out of a window at a quaint Oxford college with an air rifle pointed at an aged war veteran? What about his shenanigans in Thailand at the ping-pong shows, and the lucky Buddhas which played such a significant part in his fate? What about “Old John”? “Old John” who talks in endless indecipherable riddles?
Although difficult to pin Rose down with a definitive style, he’s certainly got flair as a director. Mr. Nice is stylish, no doubt about that, but why make Marks into something he’s not? A cult figure? Certainly. But a rock star…
Bernard Rose has triumphed in the difficult challenge of turning Marks’ ridiculously complicated life story into a linear, coherent storyline that highlights the tremendous highs and the crushing lows. Sadly, it comes at a cost, as his film is far too reductive. There were many things I liked about Mr. Nice, but as with most literary adaptations, it doesn’t quite measure up.