Nobel Son Movie Review

R, 110 m., 2007

Director: Randall Miller
Writers: Jody Savin & Randall Miller (written by)
Stars: Alan Rickman, Bryan Greenberg, Shawn Hatosy

Randall Miller’s Nobel Son is a twisted, stylish, darkly comedic thriller – the kind of film that goes over the top, doubles back and then goes over the top again; it’s all style and little to no substance, but it’s great fun all the while.

The plot is a tangled web woven by Barkley Michaelson (Bryan Greenberg), who is (unfortunately) the son of famed chemistry professor Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman), an acidically mean-spirited S.O.B. who has a vile, vicious contempt for his son and his colleagues, and who has just won the Nobel Prize for his chosen profession. Barkley, meanwhile, has been trying to finish his PhD thesis on anthropophagy (cannibalism) and has hit a brick wall. His mother Sarah (Mary Steenburgen) is a forensic psychiatry professor (Al Pacino could’ve learned something from her in 88 Minutes) who seems to loathe the marriage in which she’s found herself, who loves her son, and who must deal with the terrible behavior of her pompously arrogant philanderer husband.

One night, Barkley goes to the book store he frequents and finally gets up to the nerve to talk to the deep, darkly mysterious (and curiously named) City Hall (Eliza Dushku), a poet and artist of tortured (and torturous) proportions. Barkley beds her and borrows a $20 bill for a cab the next day (while she’s still sleeping). On the eve of Eli receiving his prize, arriving home to get ready for his flight to Stockholm, Barkley is kidnapped by mechanic and apparent chemistry dabbler Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy), who requests as ransom the $2 million in Nobel prize money.

Then there’s such peripheral characters as Detective Max Mariner (Bill Pullman), the family friend who clearly likes Sarah and looks into the kidnapping as a courtesy, and George Gastner (Danny DeVito), a “recovering obsessive-compulsive” who works as the family gardener and who saw nothing on the morning of the kidnapping.

The film has been directed and co-written by Randall Miller (Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School, Houseguest), who has gone off in a completely different direction with this film – one might say off the deep end. The film’s style makes hyperkinetic look deliberate in pace, and the dark, seamy look, the ever-roving camera and the whiplash-inducing editing recall the work of Tony Scott (Domino).

The cast is top notch, from the dry sarcasm of Rickman to the snot-nosed lovesick puppy qualities of Greenberg, to the sadistic cleverness of Hatosy and the mercurial intrigues of Dushku. The plot is all over the place in tone and subjects, and manages to encompass dark comedy, drama, mystery, thriller aspects, kidnapping, exhtortion, poetry, art, cannibalism, chemistry, forensic psychiatry and murder. It’s all a bit much, but I think I’d prefer to see a filmmaker go for broke like this and fail somewhat than try as little as possible and succeed even slightly. 

Note: A film made by Miller that was previously released in America but actually made later: Bottle Shock (2008), also starring Alan Rickman, couldn’t in any other respect be more different.

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Filed under 2008

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