As it unspools its web of twists and double-crosses, Nobel Son wears the same smug grin as dickish chemist Eli Michaelson does when he finds out he's won the Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, internal glee isn't justified by the final product. It's the most frustrating kind of movie: an occasionally funny, occasionally clever caper comedy, with a cast of talented actors giving interesting performances and a dash of directorial style on top (plus a fantastic score to boot), but ultimately unsatisfying when all the pieces have fallen into place.
Soon after discovering he's won the award, Eli and his wife Susan (Mary Steenburgen) board a plane to Sweden, with their son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) close behind. Before Barkley can get to the airport, however, he's knocked unconscious and stuffed into the back of a VW Mini Cooper. Eli gets a call shortly after from the kidnapper, Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy), who demands the $2 million in Nobel Prize money for Barkley's safe return. Nice guy that he is, Eli hangs up, and when Barkley discovers why Thaddeus is holding him for ransom, he starts to wonder if he should try to get in on the action.
Three of the actors threatened to save Nobel Son at any given moment. As Eli's long-suffering wife, Mary Steenburgen is the perfect blend of sweet, ruthless, exasperated and defeated. A thumb shows up in the mail, but the cops need time to positively identify it as Barkley's. Upon learning this, Susan rattles off a pitch-perfect list of mildly distressing reasons why it's better for everyone if the thumb really does belong to her son. "But he'll never be good at golf," she sighs. "You need thumbs for golf." Bill Pullman plays Max Mariner, a co-worker of Susan's assigned to the kidnapping case. Max takes this response in stride. Max takes everything in stride, in that wonderfully wry Bill Pullman way. He seems so unperturbed and slightly suspicious of the whole scenario that when he finally makes a few carefully calculated moves of his own, it put a big grin on my face.
Then there's Eliza Dushku. I'd have to guess her presence is going to lure more viewers to Nobel Son than anything, and she doesn't disappoint. As demented poet City Hall, she's a magnetic combination of sexy and unhinged. Every word out of her mouth seems to resist being spoken, as if she's an alien from another planet that doesn't quite understand how to talk, and she's often unable to sit still, writhing and squirming as Max interrogates her for information. The movie fails her more than the rest of the cast, giving her character an unsatisfying denouement, but in every scene leading up to it, she gives the proceedings a burst of psychotic energy.
The movie is scored by renowned DJ Paul Oakenfold, which is worth mentioning all on its own. I'm certain you could listen to the CD soundtrack for the movie and imagine a much more interesting caper without even trying. His contributions seem to taper off as the movie unfolds (another, classical composer also worked on the movie), but during the movie's faster-paced first half, the music alone is almost enough to carry things along.
Wastefulness, however, is the downfall of Randall Miller and Jody Savin's script. The movie doesn't seem to think the premise will sustain through to the end credits, so it makes a weird shift at the beginning of the third act that takes it strangely wacky places. Hatosy isn't quite up for it, though, and bit by bit the film falls apart as it lurches towards the finish line. Even worse, it started to look like a reasonably satisfying conclusion was in order, but several bits of information I thought were going to come into play are simply ignored, and an alternate, less satisfying ending wins out. The rest of the stellar cast is also ignored: Ted Danson, Danny DeVito, Ernie Hudson and Lindy Booth all appear and do nothing.
For a caper movie to work, the plot has to be clever, the action has to be fast, and the double-crosses have to be diabolical and double-edged. Nobel Son is all three of those things in fits and starts, but the elements never come together at the same time. There are performances here worth watching, and I can't deny the movie has a twisted verve, but Nobel Son feels like a screenplay that could have used a few more drafts for additional cleverness.
For once, I'm glad the DVD didn't go with the theatrical artwork. Not that the DVD cover is any great shakes, but the extremely yellow poster was a garish, awful mess. The cover chooses a cool black-white-red color scheme instead, and a cleanly-designed back cover even makes the package look stylish. There's a red strip underneath the UPC to remind people that this disc is "available only for rental", and there's no insert. The menu is nice, although not particularly thrilling, and it's also completely silent.
Much like its content, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation looks fairly grimy. Contrast is particularly sharp, with sickly, obtrusive blacks on the fringes of everything. I don't know exactly what's wrong with it (perhaps edge enhancement, digital sharpening, something), but rough textures look slightly pixelated. Color is also anemic, although that at least seems to be intentional. Detail is great, but on the whole, Nobel Son could look a lot better.
Nobel Son seems like a fairly low-budget movie, so despite a mid-movie car chase, the surrounds on this English Dolby Digtital 5.1 track only activate for Paul Oakenfold's awesome score. Otherwise, the dialogue comes through the front and not much else is really going on. Unlike the video, I'm not sure how much room for improvement there really is, but the sound is often as unimpressive as the picture. English captions and Spanish subtitles are provided.
The supplements look like a well-rounded package, but they don't add up to much. There's an audio commentary with director/co-writer/producer Randall Miller, co-writer/producer Jody Savin (Miller's wife), and actors Bryan Greenberg, Mike Ozier and Eliza Dushku. Dushku was recorded separately (with Miller in the room), but the track seems to be awkwardly edited in an attempt to pretend that the whole group is watching the movie together. Not that it matters, because Dushku barely pipes up; the track is dominated by Miller and Greenberg. who are genial and impart a lot of production information, but on the whole it's not all that engaging. Anyone who really loves Nobel Son will probably enjoy it, but I could take it or leave it.
The rest of the special features are fluff. Three deleted scenes (4:45) are forgettable, and a featurette (13:00) is EPK-style in nature and isn't very enlightening or entertaining. Both red-band (2:37) and green-band (2:27) theatrical trailers for Nobel Son are included. Automatic, non-anamorphic trailers for The Haunting of Molly Hartley, Taken, Possession and S. Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale play before the menu, and the special features section contains three super, extra-special bonus trailers for How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, Slumdog Millionaire and Choke.
If you're in the mood for a darkly devious caper or some Eliza Dushku, and your local video store is out of something better, consider...well, something else. While the movie has its moments thanks to a talented cast, the mediocre supplement package and dirty-looking presentation mean you can skip it until it pops up on HBO.
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