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I attended the World Premiere of Nobel Son at the 2007 Tribeca Film
Festival. That's Nobel as in Nobel Prize, and it takes the festival
prize in my book. This winning film, from
writer/director/producer/editor Randall Miller (did he make lunch
too?), is on my list of Top 10 Picks from among the 30 I saw at this
Professor Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman) is about to win the Nobel Prize. His son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) is a promising Ph.D. candidate wanting little to do with his father's pomposity. A scheme is hatched which is sure to pit father against son in a way to maximize their inherent rivalry. Let the madness and mayhem begin. In addition to Greenberg and Rickman, Nobel Son stars a troupe of talented veterans including Bill Pullman, Shawn Hatosy, Danny DeVito, Mary Steenburgen, Ted Danson, Ernie Hudson, and Eliza Dushku.
It's always hard to single anyone out in such an amazing ensemble cast. Greenberg, the titular son, is a worthy protagonist. The roller coaster ride on which he is taken is chilling, yet his upper crust background and bravado veneer cannot hide his childlike innocence. It is that vulnerability which sucks us in and compels us to look even when we would rather look away.
Shawn Hatosy is one of the most prolific and versatile young actors in the business, and he is frighteningly brilliant here. The intensity he brings to this role never lets up from start to finish. Nobody is better at psycho-scary. Many will be blown away by his performance. If he wasn't on your radar before he will be after you see Nobel Son.
Alan Rickman provides most of the comic relief in a film that is much more dark than comedic. A lesser actor could have turned in an over-the-top performance which might have tipped the scales in favor of the lighter side of this film. That would have spoiled the intensity of the violent escapades these young men partake in. But he manages to play the buffoon as only a legend can.
I was quite surprised by the look and feel of this film. It's much more stylized than one might expect. Digital effects and clever camera work help take what could have been a standard caper movie (a la Oceans 11) and turn it into a psychological thriller, emphasis on the thrills. It is such a fascinating story and an amazing script, and kudos to Randall Miller for being able to create a work which defies categorization. Gasps and laughs are traded back and forth, yet it manages to toe the line between comedy and tragedy without losing its focus.
If Kubrick inhaled nitrous oxide while making A Clockwork Orange, it might look something like Nobel Son. It will keep you on the edge of your seat, literally. Nobel Son is a breathtaking, refreshing escape from convention.
Greetings again from the darkness. "Bottle Shock" director Randall
Miller is back ... only "Nobel Son" was filmed first (you really have
to love the Hollywood system). While "Bottle Shock" was a pretty
straight forward re-telling of a wine industry break through, this film
takes us on a dark ride with blazingly quick turns. It can be taken as
a entertaining thriller/who-dunnit to who, or even as a psychological
study on egotistical, domineering parents.
Much of the "Bottle Shock" crew is back ... Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman and Eliza Dushka. Add Mary Steenburgen, Shawn Hatosy (Outside Providence, The Cooler), Danny Devito and Ted Dansen, and you have an odd, but talented cast to deliver your odd, but entertaining film.
Alan Rickman plays the role he seems born to play ... arrogant self-diagnosed genius. His family and co-workers somehow tolerate him despite his blindness to their own talents. This is especially problematic once Rickman becomes a Nobel Prize winner. Without giving anything away, his son, played by Bryan Greenberg (Prime) is kidnapped and held for the $2 million Nobel prize money ... by a guy with ties to Rickman's character. That is the simple part. After that, the script flies through its twists and turns creating quite a mess of fun! Bill Pullman is the detective on the case and he draws from his voice pattern as the odd realtor in "You Kill Me", all while pining for Steenburgen ... who is a brilliant forensic expert in her own right. Danny Devito takes an odd turn as the Reformed OCD gardener who has a couple of memorable scenes. Eliza Duska (the bar owner in Bottle Shock) is quite memorable as the stunningly dark poet who captures Nobel Son's heart the evening before he is nabbed. Coincidence??? What I find most interesting about the script is that it could have focused on any number of story lines. Steenburgen, Rickman and Dushka all have characters that could be developed further. But it really works here to have the division and balance.
My only warning here is to be prepared for a Guy Ritchie-type experience. There are times of rapid-fire edits and crazy techno-mod music that will challenge your ability to follow along and keep up. I believe it just adds to the fun in this case.
Nobel Son is not an easy film to foretell, and with its constant
genre-morphing subplots, psychotic characters and unordered narrative,
it will keep you guessing all the way through. This escape from
convention is not always a good thing the first half hour of the film
tries the patience and is so disjointed and seemingly nongermane that
it's impossible to predict the relationships of the bizarre events.
Once you've made it to the second act, pieces start to fall into place
and realizations are hinted upon, but it doesn't stop there. More
twists, more complexities and one too many unlikely coincidences might
make you think twice before feeling satisfied by this suspenseful
drama/dark comedy/horror/mystery thriller.
The opening scene consists of an alarmingly brutal thumb-severing bit of violence that perfectly paves the way for the unpredictable and mind-boggling adventure that follows. Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman, in a wonderfully despicable role that he continually excels at) has just been announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for his stellar work in chemistry. He's egotistical, eccentric, uncaring and obnoxious, and has been handing out higher grades in exchange for sex with his young female students. His son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) is struggling with his PhD thesis on cannibalism (his opening line of narration quotes Michel De Montaigne, a 16th century philosopher: "There is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead."). He also struggles with an awkward romance with City Hall (Eliza Dushku), a morbid poet and artist with her own bountiful measure of oddness.
Eli's wife Sarah (Mary Steenburgen) is a renowned forensic psychiatrist who is fancied by Max Mariner (Bill Pullman), a somewhat crafty detective. On the morning of the family's trip to Sweden to attend the Nobel Prize party, Barkley is kidnapped and held for a $2 million ransom; the money awarded to Eli. From here, backstabbing, jealousy, lust and greed collide in nonstop twists and turns, proving that once again nothing is what it seems.
Every character in Nobel Son is devious, shrewd, freakish, obsessive compulsive or morally flawed (most often all of those combined) making it difficult to side with any of the numerous antiheros. The first plot surprise is unique and smart, but then the filmmakers try too hard and it becomes unnecessarily convoluted. This is where the unexpected genre confusion comes into play, at times heading down the path of taut mystery thriller, always mixing in dark, subtle humor (and blatant grossness with poetry reading from "Death By Drain-O" and verses involving bathing in excrement), and eventually borrowing from films like David Fincher's Seven, Body Heat, Wild Things and even Mission: Impossible.
Nobel Son is definitely a shock to the system, an unconventional film that reminds us of the chaos of those rare movies that breathe life into the most peculiar characters and situations. It's not perfect and its originality only comes from the amount of time that has passed since a movie like this was presented, but it's certainly worth a try.
- Mike Massie
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I admit that I love dark comedies. Something about the mixture of
violence, thrills, and comedy just make a perfect amalgam of cinema to
entertain my slightly off-kilter sensibilities. When I saw that the
film Nobel Son was opening up at the local theatre, I vaguely recalled
that the trailer seemed interesting and the cast recognizable. So I
said what the hey? I think that the closest cousin I can manage to cull
from memory would be the great, underrated gem Suicide Kings from a few
years back. Randall Miller's film isn't quite as entertaining as that
one, but as far as tone and feel go, it resembles it well. Rather then
a truly great story that stands up besides the jokes, a la In Bruges,
Nobel Son falls into the trap of having many kooky characters that just
happen to enter each other's lives to allow for the shenanigans. It
feels as though the people were created first and then the story
second, letting the puzzle pieces fall into place. Don't get me wrong,
the eccentric players are part of the charm, I just would have liked
them to be a bit more real than so obviously playing for jokes and
The tale itself isn't anything really new. Take any old kidnapping plot where the victim becomes a part of the plan and double-crossing soon takes over upon completion; erase a few adjectives and verbs; and Mad Libs in the blanks to freshen it up. A jerk of a father wins the Nobel Prize for his work in the field of chemistry, whereupon a man who may or may not be his illegitimate child, whose mother's husband is whom the father's winning work was stolen from, decides to kidnap the man's true son for the two million dollar purse. It's a bit convoluted and Miller enjoys throwing in chemistry jargon throughout to impress us, whether what is spoken about molecules is even true, don't ask me, I kind of zoned during those passages. However, the highly coincidental series of events and relationships does allow for it all to come together. The kidnapped son ends up proving to his assailant that he'd love to get back at his father any way he can, and the two hatch an elaborate plan, involving the full reconstruction of a car within two hours, to steal the money clean and not let anyone get hurt besides an innocent man soon to be without a thumb. Throw in a beautiful, yet insane girl, who you know is involved more than let on; a detective on the case who is also in love with the hostage's mother, a co-worker; and a "reformed" obsessive-compulsive tenant, and you can understand how off the wall it could potentially get.
Again, the story is pretty airtight and coherent, besides some logistical questions like putting a working car together in that short of time by one man, putting a car in an above the garage apartment, (I think you have to look the other way on this one), and just the sheer amount of photos and documents that are readily available to prove guilt. As far as motivations and intelligence, all that is understood and believable. No one here is really likable at all; everyone has an agenda and whether it took the events in the film for some to act on them or not, they definitely weren't innocents. The Michaelsons are one messed up family that deserves the chaos, but revenge is always served best cold, I guess. And maybe it really is more vicious to devour a man while he is still alive then dead.
Those story elements all pretty much run their course without pause, so one doesn't get much opportunity to question it, or care whether it is all kosher. Instead, the real focus is on the characters. Those that standout are the ones with the most issues. Sure Alan Rickman does his usual smarmy best as the aging lothario professor with an ego that cannot be measured and Mary Steenburgen plays the cerebral analyst, always looking and deciphering things before the cops on the case can, but that kind of stuff is expected. Even the star, Bryan Greenberg's Barkley, the son of the aforementioned actors, does his norm. Add a few corny, cheeseball lines, 80's music, and delete the bloodyou'd think he came right out of "October Road". No, where the genius lies is in the criminals and supporting roles. Shawn Hatosy, as the half brother/mastermind, has made a career out of playing semi-intelligent headcases that switch from harmless innocence to manic, homicidal delinquency. His Thaddeus James is the perfect villain here because what he does has merit, so when it all starts to unravel, his compassion is believable. My favorites, though, are Eliza Dushku as the love interest and Danny DeVito as the obsessive-compulsive. DeVito is hysterical as Gastner, going through his mental checklists in a calculating monotone and nervous disgust. But if you want true insanity, Dushku delivers in spades. As City Hall, she is one messed up deviant. A psychopath girlfriend type, her actions and artwork juxtaposed with her beauty and sexuality would make any guy confused and willing to play along.
Nobel Son is a nice entry to the genre and a character piece with a lot of good. I appreciate that Miller tries to be creative and add his own flair, but in doing so, the aesthetic becomes a bit ho-hum and ordinary. The sharp cuts and blurring tricks help deflect what we see until the truth is revealed, and the close-up camera work helps add a layer of detail for us to enter the movie, yet it's all been done before. Even a gimmick that works at times becomes a little overkill with its abundance, however, that final ticker-typed name and occupation caption made all the others before it worth the trouble.
I was really looking forward to "Nobel Son". I was thinking, finally,
an intelligent thriller that is going to focus on the characteristics
of those found in the academic sciences. But I'm afraid that all I got
was a jumbled mess that never really accomplished anything.
The son of a Nobel Prize-winning chemist is kidnapped for ransom. There are a lot of interesting ways to take this story. The main problem is, they take all of them. We have an opportunity to investigate what's really going on in the mind of the son, how has his father affected his life, why does the father live his life the way he does, who is really responsible for the kidnapping and why... . The ways to explore this story are endless, and instead of delving in whole-heartedly, all that came out was a jumbled mess that left me feeling frustrated with no invested knowledge in any part of the story. Another review said the problem was too many cooks. I second that, and will adapt the phrase from "too many cooks spoil the broth" to "too many writers spoil the story". Only two screenwriters were credited, but I'm willing to bet there were more with their hands in it.
The actors were all quite good, I'm sure. It's the characters that I'm more confused about. Whenever they presented a scene which echoed my experiences in the ivory tower of science, they usually followed that up with a scene that didn't make sense based on what we knew about the characters. Perhaps I was focusing too much on specifics, but I was continuously confused and frustrated by their characterization and story ideas. Too many writers, ideas, and lack of focus spoiled "Nobel Son".
This movie demonstrates everything that's wrong with Hollywood.
The overall story isn't that bad; it's the execution. This movie is filled to the brim with myriad plot holes, implausible situations and dialog, lame humor and laughable attempts at poignancy. And if that's not bad enough, it's also crammed with clichéd sound effects, unrelated trendy music and an array of un-called-for camera tricks and 'cool' editing. There's so much absurd stuff here, it would take me hundreds of pages to explain it all. Almost every aspect of this film is so implausible, that right from the start I could not suspend my disbelief.
It's as if the filmmakers decided to use every cool camera movement and editing that they ever saw and shoehorn it into this movie. That, coupled with the bad music choices, make the tone of this thing jump all over the place. It's disjointed and lacks a unified feel.
Why are the characters introduced with typing across the screen? This is a pathetic cliché that goes back to espionage type movies, so why is it here? Who's documenting the case? This movie doesn't know what it wants to be. It tries desperately to be Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino all rolled into one and it just doesn't work. Barkley narrates at the beginning and end of this movie. If it is supposed to be seen through Barkley's eyes, then we've been cheaply duped, because a ton of stuff has been left out that would have been shown to the audience. You can't have a character narrate and then hide what he sees and hears from the audience. It's a cheap trick.
The tip of the iceberg of plot holes and implausibilities: What is the purpose of the gardener character? He could be removed and the story wouldn't change one bit. And why was he murdered? It seems absurd that they'd kill him just to vacate the apartment. These are supposed to be brilliant people; wasn't there a less illegal, less violent way to accomplish that? And what's with linking OCD with electric cars? The filmmakers often try to make a correlation between things that don't correlate. The Pat Benitar thing was a sad attempt at making a poignant link between the brothers. And how convenient was it that he left City Hall's apartment without his shoes. No one I know has ever been in that much of a hurry. He couldn't just carry them along with his shirt? Like so much of this script it's unbelievably contrived.
If there's been four thumbs taken in the last month wouldn't it be on the news? Wouldn't everybody know about it? And, if so, why is it crucial to send a thumb, to show you mean business, when everyone knows it's probably not the kidnap victim's thumb. And how did they get the Mini-Cooper in the apartment? Where did the brothers meet and plan it all? How did they know about each other? And Eli's dialog about molecules luminescing is over-the-top sophomoric.
Thaddeus spends a significant amount of time telling us how much of a horrible person his father is. Then, instantly, he wants his father to be proud of him and he wants to follow in his footsteps. What? He wants to steal other people's work and mess around with grad students and other people's wives? And Barkley seems like a dork even after we're shown that he's some kind of evil genius. I know a heck of a lot of Phds and not one of them ever played a Gameboy. And his mother is proud that he's an evil genius, because I guess, she's kind of evil too, even though she appears to have lived a successful and upstanding life for the past 50-odd years. Another cheap trick. OK, we get that people aren't all bad or all good. What a revelation. I think I got it when I was ten years old. And just in case we didn't get the message, Barkley actually tells us that during the opening credits.
Fortunately, City Hall lit one hundred candles near her bed on the roof, just in case, she brings home Barkley, virtually a stranger, many hours later. And wouldn't it be funny if Barkley woke up in the morning and stretched, but forgot that he was naked and outdoors in bright sunlight and somebody saw him. Hilarious. If I was twelve years old again. Who's ever heard of moo-shu? I've been eating moo-shi for longer than Barkley's been alive.
And we're spoon-fed embarrassing amounts of exposition: Thaddeus chronicling the gardener's history, Eli's history, etc. And just in case we missed the fact that City hall has done something twisted, don't worry, because right after she does it, a song is played that tells us that she's a twisted girl. And Barkley tells his whole personal situation to a clerk at a café. It's ridiculous. I've never seen such bad exposition. It's just lazy writing it really insults the intelligence of the viewer.
There's the poetry reading place, where predictably, everyone's poetry is ludicrous, except, of course, City Hall's. I mean, this gag's got whiskers on it.
And what's with the twisted logic of Sarah, "I hope it's Barkley's thumb. If it's somebody else's thumb then the kidnapper is a calculating psychopath." So, by that logic, if the kidnapper cuts off Barkley's thumb, then he's a psychopath, just not a calculating one. OK, I'll be on planet earth if anybody needs me.
You can't tell what's going happen because you're not given enough information. They've stacked the deck where you can't possibly figure it out and by the end there's so many ridiculous and implausible situations that you don't care. A mystery must include all the info needed to get it. Otherwise, it's cheap trick, which is what this is.
Nobel Son is a labyrinthine clockwork plot that involves one of the
trickiest, slickest heists since The Italian Job or the first and
second Ocean's films, a con game with more twists and hairpin turns
than a script by David Mamet on coke, and a theme of desire for revenge
that seethes even more after dubious narrative about-faces. The heist
and con game film and the revenge story are a surefire mix for me. But
I felt like I was trying to watch a great heist movie at a rave party.
Whether techno music is good or bad, it renders you a slave to its
beat. But I wanted to be a slave to the movie's beat. It's difficult to
do both. Hence, the film is a more difficult viewing than it needs to
As a philandering chemistry professor who as a laboriously detestable character drives the story by winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Alan Rickman is the definite anchor for the ensemble cast of characters, all of whom are pawns in the script's scheme to weave the jazziest web the genre's seen in years. It could have easily achieved that goal were director Randall Miller contemplative enough to understand the effects of the audiovisual medium of film. There are not only sequences which require a much different kind of music, but there are several sequences which would be much more impacting to the tension of the unraveling story's pace without overscoring at all. Nearly every American genre film has sequences handled in the less effective way, but few of them soar into the depths of its extreme.
Rickman is the flagship but Mary Steenburgen is no less charming as his wife. A woman can be married to a man like Nobel Prize-winning chemist Eli Michaelson purely by being masochistic, deranged or in control of a deeply sophisticated feel for bitter sarcasm. But in spite of there being plenty of pleasant surprise in bit roles by Danny DeVito, Ernie Hudson and Bill Pullman as well, there isn't much room to talk about their performances, which are compartmentalized into roles that serve more as functions than characters to create a remorseless plot. Each character's occupation has much more to do with how they could come in handy to tie up loose ends than with who they are.
Nevertheless, this caper takes you for a turbulent excursion, because whether or not Randall Miller or his wife and co-writer Jody Savin have crafted a top-drawer entry into the con game genre, they remember that confidence tricks manipulate human weaknesses like selfishness, corruption and ego, as they are all things a con artist possesses himself, but also exploited are merits like honor, charity or a forthright belief in good faith on the part of the con artist.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although funny at times, I could not get myself to care about a character or a plot development. Apparently the mistreated son is our hero, though he certainly does not seem deserving of praise or reward. So obviously and early do we understand Dad is to receive his come-up-pence that we really don't care when it happens. Most annoying was evil son's unexplained transformation from a terror to a wimp, or mom's change into a vindictive spouse. Bill Pullman appears confused about his role, playing it as over-the-top corny. Absolutely awful ending. Without the occasional laugh, would've been a complete bomb. With tone and script changes, this could've been much better.
This wasn't all bad, but it didn't seem to know where it was going. First of all the lousy music. This was intrusive, too loud and in places even drowned out the dialogue. I found myself reaching for the remote to lower it every time the nutter came on. He was accompanied by crazy music to let us know he was crazy. Then you had to turn the sound up again to catch the next bit of dialogue. The music was terrible, and sounded as if it was added at the last minute to change the direction of the movie in post edit. Then I realised what had happened. The original comedy movie had been made into a 'dark comedy' after shooting was over. The cannibalism, mutilation, kidnapping, murders and beatings were a little too much for the review audiences, so it had to become a thriller. The Woody Allen style poetry group and the presence of so many comedy actors, Rickman, Danson, Steenburgen, De Vito surely meant that this began as a comedy, but someone (one of the 5 producers ? ) decided to change tack. Was De Vito originally meant to be more enhanced role and he was cut down to practically a cameo ? Why was Danson given only a few cutting lines as the University Dean ? Given Benny Hill style music, or even a decent rock score, but hey they have to be paid for, the whole film would have been better. Why did this go straight to DVD here in the UK, and then be given away in a newspaper ? I think a fine cast was let down here by a too many cooks effect and a corporate writing and editing debacle.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
What a terrible, rotten movie.
To start with, the character played by Alan Rickman, the Nobel prize winner, was not the least bit believable. It isn't that Rickman played the role badly, but just that the character is not a believable character. If you were to come across this story as a novel, I am sure that you would find the 1st chapter ridiculous and put it down and not finish it.
I don't like movies that clearly are put together so as to convince me of one thing and then turn around and change things. This is not the same thing as a clever plot twist. Early during the kidnapping, you naturally ask yourself if the son is in on the kidnapping. You look for evidence of that, but the way that the scenes play out, it is overwhelmingly apparent from his behavior and the behavior of the kidnapper that the son being kidnapped has no knowledge of the kidnapping. Then after doing everything that they can do to make you think this, they reveal that the son is in on it. This simply bad move making. In fact, it is simply awful. I wanted to leave, but having paid for the ticket, I sat through the rest of it, and it only got worse.
To pull off the retrieval of the ransom, they do a vehicle switch, which is staged inside a crowded shopping mall, using a couple of Mini vehicles. The first problem with this is that there is no way in hades that a vehicle of that sort could move around like that in a crowded shopping mall without running into all sorts of stuff including people. It is ridiculous. The car that they used for the switch was shipped into the mall in parts and assembled during one night by one person. But the real problem here is how they managed to convert the read car that was on display in the mall, into a car that could be controlled by remote control. They way that they did this, as it really, really was shown in the movie, is that the accomplice set up a distraction and then slapped some sort of gadget onto the underneath of the car when no one was looking. Give me a break. In what fantasy land is it possible to convert a car to a full remote control merely by slapping some sort of gadget to the undercarriage? When this scene was shown, it was not yet revealed what it was about, and only later did it become apparent that this was how he supposedly converted that car to remote control. When I realized this, that was when it was beyond apparent that this movie is just some cheap story that someone threw together in a few hours and then went out and hired some actors and a director and started filming. It is a bad, bad story, with an absurd plot.
But as bad as all that was, it got worse by an order of magnitude as soon as the kidnapping was pulled off and the son and the accomplice parted ways. What happens after than is so utterly preposterous that I can't even lower myself to telling you about it. The accomplice, who is the bastard son of the Nobel prize winning father and by all evidence a genius in the first part of the movie, now demonstrates that he is really, really stupid beyond belief. It starts off not the least bit believable, and just becomes increasingly less believable as the story progresses. What else can I say? This is just a very, very bad movie, and I cannot believe that there are so many people who would be even moderately entertained by such a bad story, much less give it the high ratings that it is getting. If you are intelligent and enjoy a clever story, you are going to be insulted by this bad story.
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