Review: Nobel Son Is No Prizewinner

"Too clever, sadly, for its own good."

 

From the floating face fragments and pithy proclamations in the opening credits -- I liked Scarface over Superman -- to the stylized speed frames and trendy clubbin' soundtrack, it's clear that Nobel Son is aiming for clever.

Alan Rickman slips into familiar shoes as an insufferable and insulting egomaniac in a more-dark-than-witty dark comedy with a Ruthless People plot, a Pulp Fiction attitude and a V for Vendetta-sized chip on it's shoulder.

The ingredients sound appetizing, but the result is hard to swallow.

The trailer was better. Much better.

Rickman plays chemistry professor Eli Michaelson, the despised patriarch of a high-functioning dysfunctional family consisting of forensic psychiatrist wife Sarah (Mary Steenburgen) and son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg), who's writing an anthropology thesis that involves cannibalism. Somewhere between nailing nubile graduate students and undermining his son, Eli manages to make a Nobel-prize-winning chemistry discovery. But Karma apparently has Eli on her naughty list. On the eve of his prize acceptance in Stockholm, Barkley is kidnapped. Like a typical SOB, Eli calls the kidnapper's bluff and refuses to pay the ransom. What follows is a convoluted maze of misdirection, deception and payback that lasts less than two hours but feels like four. Halfway through I expected -- and hoped -- to see the final credits roll.

It's not that Nobel Son completely lacks cleverness or captivating moments. Danny DeVito does an intriguing turn as a reformed obsessive compulsive. At times, kidnapper Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy) radiates an enthrallingly unfathomable madness. Rickman is predictably good, but he's been better, in better movies. Steenburgen is convincingly and comically hardcore, especially when she points a pistol at a pesky TV journalist. And plot twists try hard to keep the audience's heads spinning long enough to make them too dizzy to predict what's around the bend.

But in the end, the fragments don't fit. The maze dead-ends one too many times. Nobel Son is no Pulp Fiction (or Ocean's 11 for that matter), despite a similar storytelling style -- caffeinated scene switches, self-indulgent gore, elaborately choreographed capers. Its plot twists deteriorate into self-contradiction and senseless confusion. And it's harder and harder to believe -- in the story, and the movie. The film's choppy pace doesn't help. Lagging in the middle and then accelerating for a bum's rush climax. Party's over, every story line out! A little more editing might have gone a long way.

Occasionally funny but more frequently melodramatic, the dialogue is irritatingly certain of its own profundity. "It's more barbaric to eat a man alive" than to eat a dead man. Even when citing Pat Benetar lyrics. Which might have made a classic quote in a movie that didn't seem like it was constantly trying to come up with classic quotes.

Add it all up -- Pat Benetar, Barkley in a Wayne's World wig in a Mallrats adventure with a remote control car, parents getting payback, a crazy vixen with a comic book name, excrement-inspired poetry readings, a Chemical Brothers backbeat and a Mini Cooper full of self-important self-awareness -- it's a journey to the center of a sophomoric cinema brain. (Even if that still sounds good -- it's not as good as it sounds.)

A film that thinks it's much cleverer than it is. Too clever, sadly, for its own good.

Grade: C-