Nobel Son ***
Directed by Randall Miller
Written by Randall Miller and Jody Savin
Alan Rickman as Eli Michaelson
Bryan Greenberg as Barkley Michaelson
Shawn Hatosy as Thaddeus James
Mary Steenburgen as Sarah Michaelson
Bill Pullman as Max Mariner
Eliza Dushku as City Hall
Danny DeVito as Gastner
Rated R for some violent gruesome images, language and sexuality.
I saw "Nobel Son" at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007, only four months shy of being two years ago. Finally surfacing in theatres for a quiet, and surprising considering the lack of marketing, release during one of the slowest film weeks of the year. I do not remember much of the film, as I've seen hundreds and hundreds since this one, so this is really simply an expansion of a festival report, which you can access by clicking here.
"Nobel Son" is the second film by Randall Miller, whose third film-the summer sleeper "Bottle Shock, a film that I really did love-was released a few months prior, really showing how long this has been sitting on the shelf. After somewhat affecting and sweet films, such as his debut "Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing and Charm School," Miller opts for a darker and much more bitter film, creating the dark Christmas film of the season. Assembling a fantastic group of actors, a few of them actually appearing in "Bottle Shock," which I'm guessing was made very quickly after the filming of this, Miller creates a rather dense and highly entertaining crime story, despite being somewhat convoluted and over stylized at times.
The center piece of "Nobel Son," as was "Bottle Shock," is Alan Rickman, who appears to be some kind of muse for Randall Miller. Rickman plays Eli Michaelson, a very stuck up science teacher at a university, where he is constantly praising his tutelage and professing his superiority over his students. His big head only gets bigger when he learns that he is going to be recieving the Nobel Prize for his efforts. This is much to the dismay of Eli's son, Barkley, who wants to distance himself as much from his father as possible, as well as Sarah, Eli's long-suffering wife. Barkley soon finds himself involved in the prize after he is kidnapped and held ransom by Thaddeus James. Pretty soon, Eli and Sarah recieve a severed finger in the mail, and a ransom letter for the two million dollars in prize money that Eli recieves for the Nobel. In the mix is Detective Max Mariner, who senses something fishy going on somewhere within the entire caper, an obsessive-compulsive tenant, and a seductive poet named City Hall, whose sudden appearance and attraction to Barkley seems too good to be true.
The main strength of "Nobel Son" comes from the performances, especially by Alan Rickman who fits the bastard and smug character like a glove. Playing an cruel version of his "Bottle Shock' snob, Rickman ends up being the highlight of this film as well, despite a rather small amount of screentime. Both Eli, and Steven Spurrier in the latter film, end up being the most memorable characters in the films, and in "Nobel Son," Rickman creates a rather hilarious cretin, and one of the most vile characters of the year. There is also good work by Bill Pullman, another "Bottle Shock" vet, playing a more fun character here than the highly emotional character in "Bottle Shock," really highlighting Pullman's range as an actor.
After his two other quieter comic dramas, Miller seems to want to play against type, and it shows with some of his choices behind the camera. This is where many of my problems with "Nobel Son" surface. At times, Miller tries to be more clever than his own good, with on screen text providing the names and characteristics of his main characters as they are introduced, several montages, and choppy editing during some of the more action packed scenes. An interesting plot development in a mall around the midpoint is nearly ruined with techno/rap music, a profane mechanical Santa Claus, and constant shaky camera work. It's hard to enjoy the dark and gritty cinematography, by Mike Ozier, who is also responsible for the sweepingly beautiful images in "Bottle Shock."
The script for "Nobel Son" is clever, but at times does get mildly loaded with plot developments. As confusing as it could be, sometimes for no good reason than to be convoluted, one with a keen eye could pay attention to all the progressions. Despite its flaws, "Nobel Son" is practically always entertaining, and well worth seeing for the for its great ensemble, all of whom work well together in forming a very memorable cast of characters. "Nobel Son" is not a must-see, but a perfect calm before the storm of award contenders in the coming weeks.