Film Review: Nobel Son
December 04, 2008
Matching the mess made of his August opener “Bottle Shock,” writer/director Randall Miller returns to cinemas with the equally-as-troubled “Nobel Son.” Well, return is a strong word, since “Son” was shot three years ago and is barely seeing a legitimate theatrical launch. Frankly, I can’t blame the distributor: this bogus cutting-edge thriller is obnoxious and repellent in any direction it stands, mistaking distasteful tonal changes for cinematic razzle dazzle.
Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman) is an arrogant, despicable college professor who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize. Off to accept his accolades with tolerant wife Sarah (Mary Steenburgen), the celebration is cut short when word arrives that their son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) has been kidnapped by the enigmatic Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy). Coming to the aid of Eli and Sarah is Max (Bill Pullman), a cop searching for clues in a case that doesn’t make much sense. When Barkley is released after a two-million-dollar ransom is paid, it leads Sarah and Max to discover that the confused young man may have had more to do with the kidnapping than previously thought, while Thaddeus plans a new con game to further shake up the Michaelson household.
“Nobel Son” is an intricate piece of screenwriting from Miller and Jody Savin. Weaving a tight web of double-crosses and caustic domestic troubles, “Son” aims to be something more than it actually is. Directorially, Miller is tap dancing up a storm to make the film feel alive, kicking off the proceedings with a thumb brutally hacked off a body and encouraging co-star Eliza Dushku (as Barkley’s emotionally unstable object of desire) out of her clothes in a hurry, buttering up the movie with trendy editorial techniques straight out of a Full Sail graduation project. Further trauma is inflicted by composer Paul Oakenfold, who treats the scoring process like a slow Wednesday night at an Ibiza dance club, overdoing the beat-happy music to a point of deafness. Certainly one could absorb all of this as Miller simply striving to keep the film’s energy level up, but it doesn’t take long to sense that the artificiality of the picture is overcompensating for the lack of substance.
“Son” tends to go overboard with twists and turns, using Barkley’s kidnapping stand as a nucleus to touch the lives of all the characters, either through emotional bonds or procedural questions. I don’t want to spoil the caper further, but the motivations don’t share much connective tissue, leaving most of the heavy lifting to the cast. With extremely limited talents like Greenberg and Hatosy in the lead roles, there’s no shot for dramatic tension to flourish. Miller even makes Rickman one-dimensional, which is a feeling I don’t think I’ve ever encountered from the actor before. With accents weaving in and out of focus, star cameos that serve no purpose (I’m still wondering what Danny DeVito and Ted Danson are doing in this), and a plot that strains credibility from the first frame, it’s impossible to find a suitable entry point to the supposed “fun” that Miller is working toward.
“Nobel Son” ends up an oddly aggressive picture with little payoff to warrant the time invested. It’s dreadfully acted (again, Greenberg and Hatosy) and thickly knotted, and I remain unconvinced that even Miller knew what he was doing when it came time to piece it all together.