This isn’t exactly a normal review. After I slumped out of my screening of Nobel Son I started to write a piece describing how the experience had deflated the goofy elation I felt after seeing Punisher a couple hours earlier. The idea wasn’t to write a review, but in part to structure the piece around a new(ish) red band trailer that was sitting in my inbox, and to discuss the obvious gaming of the film’s score on the IMDB*. The idea was to write that article, not a review. I realized that would be disingenuous rubbish, as my true intent was to single out Nobel Son as total crap to be avoided at most (if not all) costs. So it’s a review, after all.
The film is slightly ambitious, which got my interest at first. Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman) is a chemistry professor and pretentious asshole who likes to have sex with students and faculty. His wife (Mary Steenburgen) doesn’t seem to cotton on to that latter fact, but she might be distracted with being the caregiver for their PhD candidate son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg), who is working on a seemingly pointless dissertation on cannibalism. The elder Michaelson has no respect for his son and his work, and the kid is fairly angsty about the situation.
That sounds pretty rote, but the plot quickly boils when Eli wins the Nobel prize for chemistry, Barkley meets a whacked-out artist named City Hall (Eliza Dushku) and is subsequently kidnapped by a guy who wants his father’s Nobel money as restitution for stealing science from an old friend. So it’s thriller territory, but with the promise of an academic bent and a whole lot of ugly family dynamics. That’s a neat combination, but director Randall Miller blows it.
Problem is, the entire movie is edited by a Labrador on industrial-grade meth and scored by Paul Oakenfold and Mark Adler, which might actually be a stage name for said Labrador. There isn’t a beat in this movie that rings true, a single situation that is tense or unpredictable or a character that feels grounded even in the movie’s own weird sense of reality. The movie is a wreck.
Oakenfold’s music is one of the major problems. I’m sure there are means by which tunes like these can effectively score a kidnapping thriller (the score for Fight Club is a great start) but this doesn’t even come close. Mentally revisit the last year of your life and boil it down to ninety minutes of highlights. Then imagine every one of those key moments scored by a souped-up import Honda roaring by, blaring synthesizers and breakbeats from 40-inch speakers. The music is intrusive, dumb, counter-productive. It breaks every dramatic moment.
A movie has to really be a trial for me to even think about leaving. It’s not that I think I have some professional standard to adhere to. (Unless I’ve promised someone a review, which wasn’t the cast this time.) I just like to know what happens next. But there wasn’t a scene that didn’t lead immediately to a thought like “I don’t have to be here.” “I could be eating waffle fries right now.” “I wonder if I could catch the last half of whatever Tyler Perry movie is next door.”
Things got worse as the relationship between Barkley and the you-so-crazy City Hall was immediately revealed as a setup. His interest in her is obvious (he’s horny; she’s hot) but the movie never bothers to reveal why she’d care. Later, a detective played by Bill Pullman (with whom I’m typically ready to be very patient) attempted to be seductive, paternal and hard-assed all at once, but he barely manages ‘puffy’. Finally, the kidnapping gave way to an undercooked heist that strained the limits even of the thin reality so far presented. (Elements include: a radio-controlled Mini Cooper, the kidnapper’s ability to build a car from parts in an hour, and the wild incompetence of every cop within 20 miles.) And then Barkley’s interest in cannibalism was even brought to bear, but not in a way that ever held a smidgen of threat.
EDIT: Realized that I forgot to mention the wholly useless, verging on inappropriate use of Danny DeVito as a distractingly OCD neighbor. His character is a good example of just how inhumane this movie is. There is not a shred of compassion for his poor guy, whose condition is played for condescending laughter. He apparently deserves only a jokey freeze-frame intro ripped from the Guy Ritchie playbook (every character gets one of these) and an ignominious final shot sandwiching a couple of lame beats of ‘comic relief’.
There are a few high points. I’m willing to give Alan Rickman a lot of leeway, and he’s so deteminately nasty here that I couldn’t help enjoying a scene or two. Eli Michaelson is an incredible dick, and Rickman obviously had a blast bringing him to life. Additionally, Shawn Hatosy worked well for me as the kidnapper who has hidden background with Eli. (He’s also got small parts coming up in Public Enemies and Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant.) Smarmy and weird, Hatosy has a good presence. He feels like the kind of guy who’d come to a party at your girlfriend’s house, jerk off in the bathroom and hide the resultant soggy tissues under her pillow. As a ‘joke’, of course.
Come to think of it, I’d rather have dealt with that than with another ten minutes of Nobel Son.
*Not that you’d realize any of this by looking at the IMDB score, which currently stands at an obviously gamed 8.7/10. Of the 335 user votes recorded, 233 score the film 10/10. That’s 69.6% of votes. Comparatively, Slumdog Millionaire, currently at 8.6/10, has votes rating it 10 from 45.1% of the user ratings. The Dark Knight, standing at 9.1/10 has only 60% of votes rating it a 10. In the years that Nobel Son sat on the shelf, interns were hard at work voting this turkey up on the IMDB so that it might have a moment in the son. Nice try, folks, but we know it’s bullshit.