Laura CliffordBarkley Michaelson (Bryan Greenberg) is struggling to complete his PhD and lives in the shadow of his arrogant, selfish and, recently, Nobel Prize-winning father, Eli (Alan Rickman). Further, he is in the doghouse with Eli when he misses the flight to attend the award ceremony. His father refuses to listen to Barkley’s reason for his absence: he was kidnapped and being held for $200000 ransom. Things get messy when dad is reluctant to pony up the cash to save his “Nobel Son.”
Director Randall Miller had a longtime TV career before he broke his feature film cherry with the okay “Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School.” It is telling that his third film, “Bottle Shock,” was released before his sophomore flick, “Nobel Son.” This all-star cast movie includes Alan Rickman, Mary Steenburgen, Bill Pullman, Danny DeVito, Ted Danson, Ernie Hudson and Eliza Dushku and, with all this talent, it should have been better than it is.
So, where does “Nobel Son” go wrong? The screenplay, by the helmer and Jody Savin, makes a lot of noise but does not have the substance to make it interesting. It mixes Eli’s despicable persona, his arrogance multiplied by winning a Nobel Prize, with a kidnap/ransom scam involving his son and the disgruntled scion of Eli’s former, dead colleague. The script also mixes in suspected plagiarism, Eli’s frequent and numerous infidelities, a police investigation and thumb removal. There is a lot going on but it is all a jumble.
The characters are universally two-dimensional, with the exception of Mary Steenburgen as Eli’s cuckolded wife, Sarah. Alan Rickman, in particular, has no redeeming value with his character Eli. The actor camps it up well enough but it is with a single, unchanging note played, annoyingly, over and over. The rest are saddled by their unsympathetic personae.
Techs are better than “Nobel Son” deserves. Writer-director-producer-editor Miller does not have the chops, not yet, to pull off such a ponderous multi-hyphenate. I give it a D+.
When chemistry professor Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman, "Die Hard," "Bottle Shock") is feted before leaving for Sweden to pick up a Nobel prize, he uses the occasion to disparage his only son, Barkley (Bryan Greenberg, "Prime," TV's "October Road"), for the esoteric education he is pursuing. The two have little use for each other, so when Barkley is kidnapped and doesn't show up at the airport, only his mother Sarah (Mary Steenburgen, "Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School") is concerned about her "Nobel Son."
Cowriter (with Jody Savin)/director Randall Miller ("Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School," "Bottle Shock") returns with another of his 'not quite there' films, this one actually completed before "Bottle Shock." Forgoing the nostalgia of his other films, Miller attempts the twisty thriller genre with "Nobel Son" and produces his least successful work to date. There is not a moment when this film bears any semblance to reality nor can Miller engage any empathy for his characters. Worst of all, Miller allows Rickman to chew so much scenery he becomes a cartoon, a bad guy whose eventual comeuppance isn't even satisfying.
The film begins with some button pushing malarkey about cannibalism (Barkley's main course of study) while we witness a man at an ATM machine being overpowered and having his thumb cut off in grisly detail. Three weeks earlier and Eli's schtupping a student while Sarah, a forensics guru, discusses her latest case with admiring cop Max Mariner (Bill Pullman, "Bottle Shock"). When Eli wins the Nobel, it is overwhelmingly clear he is the only one thrilled about it as his offputting egoism and general bad behavior have made him no one's friend.
On the eve of the Michaelsons' departure, Barkley goes to his regular coffee shop haunt to hear the pretentious poetry of City Hall (Eliza Dushku, TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Bottle Shock"), a knockout who writes about rats and who quickly comes on to Barkley when he expresses admiration. Much is made of his lack of money as displeased dad has all but done away with Barkley's allowance. When Barkley awakens in City's apartment, she keeps him hanging on, until, at the last minute, he grabs a twenty from her wallet, leaves a note and jumps a cab back to the house, where Sarah has left their coach house tenant Gastner (Danny DeVito, "Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School"), a compulsive/obsessive, on the lookout before leaving. Barkley enters the house, realizes his parents have left, but that there is a fire blazing in the hearth. He's attacked and comes to with his kidnapper, Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy, "Outside Providence," "Alpha Dog"), who eventually informs Barkley that he is his half brother, the progeny of Eli and the wife of the best friend whom Eli stole his Nobel winning data from. Thaddeus's dad, who was sterile, also committed suicide upon learning his wife was pregnant. When their first phone call to Eli in Sweden doesn't provoke the expected reaction, Thaddeus informs Barkley he will send the man his son's thumb.
"Nobel Son" continues to twist and turn from one outlandish event to the next. Miller and Savin don't leave any loose ends hanging, but the whole thing plays like a film student's exercise, the audience a rat being led through a maze for a dry food pellet. Attempts to add personality through recurring themes like a Pat Benatar song or the fact that Eli's too cheap to allow the Michaelsons call waiting merely call attention to themselves without going anywhere. Individual story elements, like an elaborately orchestrated switcheroo, feel ripped from other movies. The cannibalism aspect that garners such early attention has nothing to do with the rest of the story.
The cast don't fare much better. Rickman's never been worse, although he elicits a few chortles with his plummy over exuberance. Greenberg mugs and overplays throughout while Hatosy never convinces as a psychopath, playing too low key. Dushku appears to be drugged. Devito makes enough of his psychosis to be marginally sympathetic and Ted Danson (TV's "Damages," "Mad Money") suffers no career setback in a small role as Eli's boss. Danson's wife Steenburgen is the only member of the entire troupe who resembles a real person and her inclusion in late stage plot manipulations keep the film from totally capsizing. Pullman fares better than his later turn in "Bottle Shock," although his role here is much smaller. Ernie Hudson ("The Crow") also shows up as, what else, a cop.
The production is television movie level and features a cheesy electronic score. Did "Bottle Shock" really do well enough to merit this earlier effort's theatrical release? All "Nobel Son" proves is that Mary Steenburgen seems able to rise above anything and Miller is .5 for 3.
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