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Nobel Son feels like three or four short films that have been mashed together into a feature. There's the first 25 minutes, which plays like a toneless family comedy; the long middle section is an entertaining but muddled caper; and the final third is a strange hybrid of creepy thriller plus morality tale. The sum is an unfocused film that has difficulty choosing its subject matter, characters, tone, and style.
Professor Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman) wins the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and is flown to Stockholm to receive the award with his wife (Mary Steenburgen). Their son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) is supposed to join them, but misses the flight and is kidnapped by Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy), who claims to be Eli's illegitimate son. The half-brothers wind up bonding and splitting the ransom. After they stow it in a safe location, Barkley returns to his family, only to be pulled into an ever-stranger web of deceit engineered by Thaddeus and Barkley's supposed one-night-stand City Hall (Eliza Dushku). Along the way, a thumb gets cut off, Rickman's character farts, Dushku appears nude, a suspicious number of Mini Coopers make appearances (product placement, perhaps?), cannibalism is discussed, and Ernie Hudson shows up, inadvertently reminding viewers that they'd rather be watching Ghostbusters.
Does that make sense? Because the film does not. It's filled with red herrings, pointless twists, and unlikely resolutions. The chief problem here is the script, co-authored by Jody Savin and director Randall Miller, which is the definition of contrived. Lots of effort is expended to create a plot that moves in unusual directions. Unfortunately, none of this is informed by the characters, about whom we know virtually nothing. There is not a single well-drawn character in the film - therefore, we don't care about them, rendering the twists and turns of the plot valueless.
The actors do try, but they are working against the odds, as many of the leads are miscast. There is no one better at playing villains, cold fish, and snobs than Alan Rickman, even though he almost always comes off as likable at some level. Nonetheless, he is not right for the philandering, crude, and selfish Professor Michaelson. Bill Pullman is a good fit as a tenacious detective, and Danny DeVito appears to have put some thought into his brief appearance as a recovering obsessive-compulsive, but the script does not allow their considerable abilities room to breathe.
Any character development in Nobel Son is also obscured by flashy photography and hyperactive editing (the latter done by Miller himself), which don't mesh well with the subject matter. The dance-inspired score (co-written by Mark Adler and none other than Paul Oakenfold) belongs in a full-blown action-thriller, which this film is not. These aspects of the production further hamper the actors' attempts at coherent performances.
Rickman, Pullman, and Eliza Dushku also appeared in director Miller's entertaining, lightweight Bottle Shock (2008); Nobel Son was shot in 2005, but was not picked up for distribution until late 2008, after Bottle Shock's moderate critical and commercial success. Bottle Shock is a better-formed film, likely because the creative team was working within the bounds of a true story. But it, too, suffered from a lack of focus and unsteady tone.
This screener from Fox is a pre-release promo disc, and it came inside a small, thin card envelope.
I cannot be sure of the video quality, as this is a watermarked promo disc. The image is anamorphically enhanced at the film's 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image on this disc features poor contrast and blown-out blacks.
The sole mix is in English 5.1 surround. As this is a promotional disc, I don't know whether this will be the commercially-available version of the soundtrack, but this version was serviceable, with very limited surround effects and clear dialogue.
There are a few special features: a full-length audio commentary featuring Miller, co-writer Savin, lead actor Bryan Greenberg, cinematographer Mike Ozier, and Eliza Dushku. The track is serviceable, but the comments tend to be along the lines of, "We shot this on the ninth day of filming," etc. Three brief deleted scenes would not have helped the film's lack of focus; they are available with optional audio commentary by Miller and Savin. A 13-minute featurette covers the EPK basics, and includes comments from most of the key players. Two trailers round out the extras: a redband, and a standard version.
Nobel Son might have made a nice comedy-thriller with a few script revisions. As it stands, this film is highly uneven. A likable and talented cast is overwhelmed by plot twists and aggressive, inappropriate editing and music. Randall Miller has the ability to corral excellent actors and an able crew; now if he would only learn to direct his own creative energy in a more focused way. Skip it.