The son of a Nobel Prize winner is kidnapped and $2 million is demanded for his return. None of that matters because what this movie is really about is the awesomeness of Alan Rickman.
There is a lot wrong with Nobel Son, yet at the end of the film I found I enjoyed it despite its shortcomings.
The biggest problem with the movie is the fact it is style over substance. The writing team of Randall Miller and Jody Savin conjured up a story with so many twists and turns, it leaves your head spinning. It is clear, both story-wise and stylistically, the duo owe a great deal of debt to Guy Ritchie. Whether it is the title cards, the double crosses met with double crosses, or the hyper-realized editing, the movie tries to be much cooler than it can ever actually achieve. I also see many similarities in the camera work of this and the Neveldine/Taylor film Crank, but Nobel Son never reaches the fun that movie exhibits. Nobel Son is a movie that tries to be something it can never actually attain. It is ironic, because that is the basis of the plot as well.
Eli Michaelson is an asshole. He is a university professor who is hated by his colleagues, treats his wife poorly and his son even worse. He is a liar, a cheat and a self righteous son of a bitch. He is also portrayed brilliantly by Alan Rickman. I understand Rickman is one of the nicest men you will ever meet in Hollywood yet, looking at roles like Snape in Harry Potter and Han Gruber in Die Hard, you might believe he is the prick he portrays so well. Even when he is a good guy, such as the Metatron in Dogma, he still comes across arrogant and snide. His role as Eli is the cherry on the sundae and may be the most hateful man he will ever get the opportunity to portray.
On the other end of the spectrum is his son, Barkley, a slacker who is working on a thesis paper on cannibalism while spending all his time at a coffee shop playing his game boy and drinking free milk. He also spends time at the coffee shop during horrid poetry readings where he pines over a strange girl named City Hall. It is made clear he is a disappointment to his father and will never achieve the level of respect that Eli has over the years. When Eli gets word he has received a respected Nobel Prize, everyone’s world is turned upside down. Eli lets everyone know they can all now kiss his ass. Barkley knows he will never hear the end of it now that his already arrogant father has fuel added to his fire. Added to the equation is Eli’s wife Sarah, who knows her husband cheats on her and allows him to degrade her, possibly thanks to an inner sense of masochism. It is a very strange family unit.
The movie is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Barkley is kidnapped by a very smart young man named Thaddeus the night before the family is to leave for Sweden to receive Eli’s prize. When Eli refuses to believe Barkley has actually been kidnapped, he is sent a thumb and told Barkley will be killed unless he pays the ransom of $2 million, the exact prize money from the prize. Thaddeus is a dark character who believes what he is doing is noble and right. He is also a genius. This is where the movie doesn’t just drift from reality, but flies right off the tracks.
The plan to get the money is to have it placed in the back of a mini cooper in a shopping mall and then use a remote control to have the car drive around the mall, burst through a wall of a store under construction and then be switched out with a duplicate car that takes off out of the other side of the wall, leaving the first car hidden. The way this is achieved is to have Thaddeus build a second car from scratch in an hour and somehow cover the first car when it busts in and have the duplicate car burst out in a matter of seconds. It is ludicrous and is just one of many things in this movie that you have to just shake your head and move on from.
So, what makes a movie this ridiculous work? The acting is magnificent. As I said before, Rickman is pitch perfect as someone you would want to kill if you met him on the street yet remains funny throughout the film. You can’t help but shake your head and smile when he steals every scene he is involved in. Mary Steenburgen is also great as the polar opposite of Rickman, a police detective who is a genius in her own right. Shawn Hatosy is very good in his role as the psychotic kidnapper who has a lot more going on under the hood than you could imagine. Let’s just say money is the least of his worries when he makes the decision to kidnap Barkley. Bryan Greenberg is also good as the protagonist of the story Barkley, although he is the least interesting until the final twist of the film. Finally, I have to say that Eliza Dushku makes me remember why I love her so much. When she strips down to her panties and says “don’t hurt me” I fell in love all over again.
The ending was a great role reversal but the script has so much going on that it shortchanges this and leaves things a bit confusing. When Eli stares at the culprits and accuses them of being behind the entire kidnapping, I think he meant the final twist but at the same time I originally thought he was trying to say they were behind the entire plan which is impossible if you try to follow the plot. Actually, it is better not to follow the plot. Just watch the great acting on display and just let the movie lead you where it wants. Don’t think about how you got there because I don’t even think the writers know for sure.
There is a fun group commentary with Miller, Savin, Greenberg and Dushku. They share anecdotes as well as technical information and it never gets boring. There is also a short feature that amounts to nothing more than a love fest between cast and crew. Also included are three deleted scenes, two showing Barkley during his revenge and another explaining in detail what City Hall had to do with everything,