Several minutes into watching this movie, about a boy with cancer learning life lessons through the process of a kind of treasure hunt left for him by his recently deceased mentor played by Bowie, I found myself asking, “what is this, an after school special?” It turns out I wasn’t far off— Mr. Rice’s Secret was a made-for-TV movie. Whatever that term means to you, this movie will reinforce it. David Bowie’s secret was why he agreed to make the movie in the first place (though I’ll get to my theory about that). Though he was the best thing about the film, his presence alone is not enough to make it worth watching.
The basic story is that 12-year old Owen (who looks like he’s 14 or 15) lives in a Beaver Cleaver world except he has cancer. People talk to one another as if they are in a TV commercial (there’s nothing worse than an actor who in life doesn’t drop his “g’s” poorly playing the part of someone who does). Owen is more or less in a state of denial about his condition and shuns another boy with cancer, Simon, who is further along, has no hair and is severely bullied by Owen’s friends. When I say severely, I mean severely. There’s one scene, which seems out of step with the rest of the Hallmark-esqu movie, in which the bullies beat and kick the small, frail Simon, complete with punching and kicking sound effects that could have been out of a Rocky movie. Anyway, Bowie’s character, Mr. Rice, a neighbor and mentor of Owen’s, leaves Owen a series of clues designed to help him conclude that what’s important is not how long he lives but what he does with the time he has. This is actually the type of thing Bowie would say and think, so there’s that. Late into the story, it turns out that Mr. Rice’s secret was that he was nearly 400-years old and left for Owen, at the end of treasure hunt, a magic potion that would ensure Owen would live out a complete life. Predictably, Owen doesn’t take the potion for himself but gives it to Simon, who, at this point in the movie was near death.
The plot alone doesn’t speak to how bad this movie was. The bad acting and dialogue have a lot to do with it. Bowie easily gives the film’s best performance. Though Bowie is a good enough actor, it usually isn’t the case that he’s the best actor in a movie. His casting often works when he plays a character reminiscent of…David Bowie. (If you read my comments on Basquiat, I mentioned that its hard not to watch his portrayal of Andy Warhol and not constantly think, “hey, that’s David Bowie playing Andy Warhol”). I think he does a good job in this role because he was in the midst of an image change, from the near demonic character he presented during the Earthling tour, to the more avuncular and approachable “real Bowie” character of around the turn of the century. I think he was probably cast to bring to the role an otherworldly air, and because, hey, they got Bowie!
Aside from bad acting (from the other cast members) and generally insipid dialogue, the movie had a bunch of other little problems. I mentioned that Owen seemed like he was 14, though the character was, I think, supposed to be younger. This made a difference as Owen’s parents seemed to be infantilizing him. Early in the movie, they wouldn’t allow him to attend Mr. Rice’s funeral because they thought it would be too upsetting. Mr. Rice was supposed to be Owen’s friend and mentor. Keeping him from the funeral seemed cruel and out of proportion to the character’s emotional vulnerability. Also, is not taking children to funerals a thing? I’ve been to plenty of funerals with children in attendance. What were these people thinking?
There’s a worse scene where Owen’s father was getting ready to deliver some parental punishment. “Drop your pants,” he commands his nearly adult-sized son. Owen never does, so we don’t see what his father had in mind. A spanking, I guess. But the prospect of a child the size of Owen receiving a spanking from his slightly-larger father is either ridiculous or terrifying. I was thinking, in order for the father to inflict enough genuine pain for the spanking to be punishing, he’s really going to have to lay the smack-down on his cancer-riddled teenage son. Seems more like abuse than strict parenting. Plus the idea of the anatomically-nearly adult Owen bent over, pant-less on his father’s knee was… maybe too horrible for words.
At another point, one of Owen’s friends mentions for no particular reason that his brother “martyred a cat” by tying its legs together and throwing it into a lake. What? Why did we have to be subjected to this terrible, terrible mental image? It was a throwaway line and the boys moved on like drowning small animals is a typical boys-will-be-boys type of activity.
The movie was also structurally flawed. Most of the movie existed in a non-magical world. It wasn’t established out of the gates that there would be a supernatural element. But unless the movie is, From Dusk til Dawn, the way these things usually go is that there are hints along the way. And indeed, there were a total of two hints that magic might be involved. The one was a flashback scene in which Owen tells Mr. Rice that he’d like to live forever, and Mr. Rice knowingly responds, “no you don’t.” The other hint came in the form of some very old pictures in which Mr. Rice appears— Owen and his friends conclude that the pictures must have been of Mr. Rice’s father, who looks just like Mr. Rice.
But, on the whole, there’s little in the movie to prepare the audience for Mr. Rice having been nearly 400 years old. That plot development of course opens up a bunch of questions that are never addressed and made me think of Bowie’s character in The Hunger, who was also a few hundred years old. I wonder if the two characters ever crossed paths?
No matter— the whole point of the magic potion was for Owen, who had been a self-centered and fairly nasty boy for most of the movie to discover altruism at the expense of his own life. OK. This was a pretty standard trope from comic books I read in my own youth. The moral of the story is, if you ever offered supernaturally long life (or the Ring of Power)— say no.
Good use of Bowie?
As I indicated, I suspect Bowie took the role as part of his agenda at the time of softening his image. According to Wikipedia, the filmmakers originally tried to get Peter O’Toole* for the part, who I’m guessing would have given a similar performance. The role is central to the movie, but Bowie doesn’t actually get an enormous amount of screen time. So within the context of a trite, sappy movie that’s maybe aimed at the very specific audience of 12-year old boys with cancer, he did his part about as well as anyone. In that respect, yes, this is a good use of Bowie. But that’s like saying it would have been a good use of Picasso to paint your house. I’m sure he would have applied the layers correctly, but maybe there would have been a better way for Picasso to spend his time?
It’s entirely possible that Bowie didn’t need to devote much time to the project at all. I recall him explaining why he turned down the role of Max Zorin in the James Bond film, A View to a Kill, by explaining that he didn’t want to spend a lot of time standing around the set watching his stunt double in action. I get it, and A View to a Kill was terrible. But at least that would have given us one more potentially iconic images of Bowie for our collective experiences. There was no need for a stunt double in Mr. Rice’s Secret. This one…this one can be skipped. Mr. Rice doesn’t make it into any of those pictures of the different faces of Bowie. It’s a harmless movie, and Bowie’s performance is better than inoffensive, but no, this isn’t a good use of Bowie.
* Peter O’Toole would later be cast in Venus (2006), another movie about the relationship between an older and younger person. It’s a near-great movie for which he recieved his eighth Oscar nomination.
Strange postscript…this is the third movie I’ve seen of late, in addition to Just a Gigolo and The Hunger, in which Bowie appears in a coffin.
Sadly, this one gets one Bowie
👩🏻🎤🧑🎤👨🎤👩🏿🎤 Four Bowie movies reviewed thus far
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
The Hunger (1983)
👩🏻🎤🧑🎤👨🎤 Three Bowie movies
The Prestige (2006)
The Snowman (1982)
Shot! The Psycho-spiritual mantra of Rock (2017)
👩🏻🎤🧑🎤 Two Bowie movies
Into the Night (1985)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
👩🏻🎤 One Bowie movies
Just a Gigolo (1978)
Mr. Rice’s Secret (1999)
Hooked to the Silver Screen is my series of commentaries about movies in which Bowie appeared. The name of the series comes from a line in the song, “Life on Mars.”