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Mr. Rice’s Secret

As of this writing, it’s been nearly a week since David Bowie tragically died at the age of 69. It seems that Bowie had been quietly dealing with cancer for the 18 months preceding, and he decided to go out like a motherfucking boss by producing a brand new album — complete with music videos — which he released mere days before his death.

The whole world was sent reeling by the sudden loss. Bowie released such a staggering variety of music over so many years that every soul alive today was somehow affected by his work. Everyone has their own vision of who Bowie was and what he meant to them. He was a man of countless different personas, and he’ll be perpetually reborn into a new persona every time someone discovers his work for the first time.

Of course, Bowie’s filmography is every bit as beloved as his music work. The internet has already been flooded with tributes to Labyrinth and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Hell, I’m sure that quite a few cinephiles gave a rewatch to The Prestige or Zoolander in Bowie’s memory. But for this tribute, I’m taking an opportunity to go a bit further off the beaten path.

From what I can tell, Mr. Rice’s Secret was an independent Canadian production that bowed in 2000 before making the festival circuit. The movie failed to find any mainstream traction — or even any kind of traction whatsoever — and was quietly released direct-to-video. The film appears to have been at least partially financed by Beau Rogers (here credited as “T. Beauclerc Rogers IV”, I swear to Ziggy) and David Forrest, both of whom co-exec-produced no less than 45 low-budget pieces of DTV dreck in a four-year period (1998-2001).

The director was Nicholas Kendall, who’s only ever helmed a couple dozen TV movies and random episodes of assorted kids’ shows. But the piece de resistance is writer J.H. Wyman, who would later give us the mishandled slop that “Fringe” dissolved into, as well as the thrice-double-damned unforgivable clusterfuck that was Dead Man Down.

On the other hand, this movie seems like an oddly fitting choice for a David Bowie tribute. Mostly because the protagonist is a terminally ill cancer patient and Bowie dies in the opening minutes.

This is the story of Owen (Bill Switzer), a teenager living with Hodgkin’s. So Owen is constantly aware of his own mortality, which makes him even angstier than your usual teenage boy. However, Owen finds solace in the company of Mr. Rice (Bowie), the neighborhood’s resident kindly old man that everybody knows and loves. So naturally, Owen is even more upset when Mr. Rice dies, though he does at least leave Owen a very elaborate decoder ring.

To make a long story short (too late!), Owen and some delinquent buddies of his learn that Mr. Rice may have actually lived to be several hundred years old. And Owen is left behind a series of clues that lead him on some kind of treasure hunt. And the whole time, he’s being haunted by visions of creepy undertakers and symbols of death like he’s in a Phantasm knockoff or some shit.

Right off the bat, everything about this picture comes off as laughably cheap. The film looks like it was shot on the cheapest cameras available. The score sounds like exactly the kind of lazy and repetitive tripe you’d expect from some hack on a secondhand synthesizer. The effects (though admittedly scarce) look pathetic even by standards of the day.

In terms of talent, the cast is all over the map. On one side of the spectrum is David Bowie, who seems to radiate wisdom and charisma even when he’s phoning it in. On the other side is Tyler Labine (who’d eventually star in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil), who seems to be chewing scenery like he’s trying to make it an Olympic sport. Everyone else ranges anywhere from unmemorable to flat fucking awful.

And the script… sweet merciful Major Tom, this script. The film opens with the funeral of Mr. Rice, in which a preacher talks in platitudes for something like two minutes straight without telling us a single damned thing about the character. The dialogue is that goddamn boilerplate. Needless to say, the script isn’t much better with regards to the inconsistent pacing, the unfocused plot, the uncertain tone, or the fantasy elements that aren’t incorporated in any kind of coherent fashion.

Everything about this movie gives the impression that it should have been broadcast as a TV movie and then quickly forgotten. But then David Bowie died. And this movie took on a whole new dimension.

A good chunk of the movie is comprised of Owen’s relationship with Mr. Rice. More specifically, we see how Mr. Rice imparted all sorts of wisdom about growing up, respecting others, living with dignity, and dying without fear. Mr. Rice’s lessons to Owen from beyond the grave are the beating heart of this movie. And now that Bowie is dead, it’s virtually impossible to separate the actor from the character. For instance:

All those coffins and caskets that you’re scared of, they’re really not that bad. It’s all how you look at it. Every coffin marks a soul — a soul who once lived and breathed and walked on this earth. Who got up and saw the sunshine, just like today. And for every one, there’s somebody out there who remembers them. Who loved them. […] Let me tell you one thing: All people, no matter who they are, they all wish they’d appreciated life more. It’s what you do in life that’s important, not how much time you have. Or what you wish you’d done.

Given what we know about Bowie’s final days, that could very easily have been something that he said during his 18 months living with cancer. And he probably would have said it with the same knowing serenity that he delivers in this film. Bowie didn’t die until 15 years after this movie was made, yet it somehow still feels like a living will and testament left behind for those who grieve his death today.

Even better, this elevates the protagonist as well. Bill Switzer is hardly much of an acting prodigy, and it doesn’t help that he’s given such heavy-handed tin-eared dialogue to work with. But when Owen talks about his inevitable death by cancer, so much of that ties in with Mr. Rice, and by extension, Bowie. Owen — as the protagonist — is the analogue for the audience, and Mr. Rice (following Bowie’s death, anyway) is an analogue for Bowie. Which means that when Owen derives strength from what Mr. Rice taught him, there’s a subconscious connection with how those in the audience might have derived strength from the life and death of David Bowie.

But without the context of Bowie’s death? All we’re left with is a cast comprised of a whimsical old man, a bunch of unlikeable teenage punks, and a bunch of other bland stereotypes spouting off uninspired dialogue.

Mr. Rice’s Secret isn’t necessarily a bad story, it’s just a badly told story. The performances, script, and production value may all be amateur-level; the plot may be crammed with gimmicks and plot threads that utterly fail to mesh into anything coherent; and the characters may be presented as if the filmmakers had only the faintest idea of how actual teenagers think and act. Yet somewhere beneath all of that is a genuinely poignant coming-of-age story about a young man coming to accept his fate as a terminal cancer patient.

A month ago, this movie was a rightfully forgotten mediocrity. Nowhere near good enough for even a limited theater release, but not bad enough to be an MST3K feature, just unremarkably bland. But then the film’s treasured marquee star died of cancer, and everything even slightly redeemable about this movie got amplified a hundredfold. Watching David Bowie talk about death with dignity and grace, and watching a young man learn from his example, is enough to hit like a punch to the gut.

I sincerely think that a lot of grieving Bowie fans would find comfort in this film, and I’d encourage any such people to try and seek it out.

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