Mr Nice (18)

We learn little from Howard Marks's drug tales, writes Ryan Gilbey

Mr Nice (18)
dir: Bernard Rose

Soliciting the audience's goodwill is a consid­eration for anyone making a film about a drug dealer. Midnight Express attempted it by bludgeoning us into sympathy for its protagonist, holed up in a Turkish prison. In Light Sleeper, the nuts and bolts of dealing were eclipsed by the hero's wider existential crisis. Blow went for the simpler route of casting Johnny Depp. "Look!" it screeched with every overexcitable close-up. "It's Johnny freakin' Depp!"

None of those options is available to Mr Nice, an adaptation of the jovial autobiography by the Welsh drug dealer Howard Marks. Although Marks served time in jail, it was in the US not Turkey, and he made rather a good fist of his years inside, advising fellow prisoners on their legal rights and so on. And if he ever had an existential crisis, he did a convincing job of hiding it. As for casting Johnny Depp - well, if we can deduce anything from the film, which inserts actors into archive footage to avoid decking out the whole of Bridgend or Piccadilly Circus in period dress and features Californian scenes that appear to have been shot in Torquay, then it is that the budget wouldn't stretch to hiring Depp's personal milliner, let alone the star himself. The movie has to make do instead with Rhys Ifans, as must we all. So begins the age of austerity.

The writer-director Bernard Rose (who has form with shambolic substance-abusers, having made Ivansxtc) tries a literal approach to get us to root for a man who boasts of importing enough marijuana in one shipment to get everyone in the UK stoned. The film opens on a red velvet theatre curtain, accompanied by the ripple of pre-show conversation. But when the curtain rises, we find that we are on stage looking out into the stalls, rather than vice versa.

It's a clever touch. Unfortunately, it's likely to be the first and last time that we find ourselves on Marks's side.

Moral objections about the value of anything that makes drug-running seem like a splendid lark don't enter into it. The defining weakness of Mr Nice is that it never makes a case for telling Marks's story. Was his success in the drug business the result of perspicacity and daring? Apparently not. Did he become a great writer? Not if the tiresome narration is anything to go by. Did he expose the disproportionate harshness of Britain's drug laws? No more than George Michael did when he last popped in to Snappy Snaps.

As the film tells it, Marks never even meant to take drugs in the first place, let alone become an international drug smuggler. His first ex­perience with dope occurs when he receives a blowback from an American girl while at Oxford. Then a friend asks him to drive a car packed with hashish from Germany to England. Inspecting the cargo, his soon-to-be-wife, Judy (Chloë Sevigny), coos over it as though she's just discovered a litter of orphaned kittens. Once his career as an accidental drug baron is under way, it is a crooked accountant who persuades him to move into the US market. Marks even gets swept along against his will in an outbreak of Irish dancing. Is there nothing for which the man will take responsibility? There hasn't been a movie character this passive since Mother in Psycho.

Further down the cast list, David Thewlis is ribald and raucous as the IRA boss Jim McCann, with whom Marks is in cahoots, and you can't help wishing the film was about him instead. Anything would be preferable to this portrait of Marks as a cherubic Oliver Twist figure, finagled into wrongdoing by the Artful Dodgers around him. Even those viewers seduced by a bleary-eyed Rhys Ifans simpering in a ropy wig will need to be on something pretty heady to swallow Marks's claim to his arresting officers that he and Judy are "an innocent couple with a family". The real Marks apparently sets great store by affability - besides the title Mr Nice, which refers to one of his aliases, the masthead on his official website promises: "You'll like him." Maybe so. But the last film which insisted that it is enough in life simply to mean well was Forrest Gump, and no picture that wishes to be liked or admired should be keeping that sort of company.

Read more from Ryan Gilbey every Tuesday on the NS Cultural Capital blog.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit