Plot is a funny thing. Not enough, and audiences will nod off. Too much, however, and you run the risk of confusing the viewer. For the most part, overly complicated films are viewed as arrogant by the majority of the mainstream. They tend to play like convoluted explanations for ideas that are basic, or simply clichéd. After showing us how Napa Valley won the war of the grape in this summer's Bottle Shock, Randall Miller
is seeing his 2007 satiric thriller Nobel Son get a "better late then never" awards season push. Yet it's hard to see who will enjoy this catawampus creation. More often than not, Miller appears to be playing to the audience in his head, not the jaded Joe Six-Packs in the actual theater seats.
On the day he leaves for Sweden to pick up his Nobel Prize in chemistry, Dr. Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman
) finds out that his PhD-candidate son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg
) has been kidnapped. While his FBI forensics psychologist wife Sarah (Mary Steenburgen
) worries, a $2 million ransom is demanded. With the help of Detective Max Mariner (Bill Pullman
), and neurotic neighbor Mr. Gastner (Danny Devito
), they hope to find the boy alive. What they don't know is that Barkley has befriended his captor, a man named Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy
) who has a DNA-sized bone to pick with the good doctor. Armed with proof that Michaelson doesn't deserve science's highest honor, the duo will create an elaborate plot to get the cash, clear up the crime, and go their separate ways. So imagine Barkley's surprise when Thaddeus ends up at his front door, with former, improbably-named fling City Hall (Eliza Dushku
) on his arm. Article continues below
Nobel Son is a movie that doesn't have good enough sense to quit while it's ahead. For the first two-thirds of this overly ambitious crime comedy, the kidnapping of Barkley and the twists and turns it takes make for riveting, if slightly mannered, moviemaking. As the criminal and his new co-conspirator illustrate the way they plan on getting away with $2 million in loot, the kinetic energy exhibited by co-writer/director Miller keeps us glued to our seats. And then things go considerably pear-shaped. As a matter of fact, the last 30 minutes of this movie are so odd and purposefully wonky that we wonder if two different screenplays weren't fused together to make one, frequently incoherent effort.
It's not that Nobel Son can't handle the sudden shift in tone, focus, or character empathy. Miller has too much experience behind the lens to let things get that out of hand. But when our prize-winning professor goes from jackass to victim, his plight paralleling that of his son's, we want to scream "enough." The film has already taken us through cannibalism, finger vivisection, bad poetry readings, blasé infidelity, university politics, OCD, and an obtuse obsession with the Mini Cooper. But by trying to switch our loyalties, by manipulating things we thought were mostly black and white, Randall loses us. He may have had us at "Hell is for Children" (love the Pat Benatar shout-out!), but the finale feels like one too many visits to the late-night contrivance convenience store.
With another under-bite intensive performance by Rickman (who probably needs a dentist more than an Oscar) and otherwise acceptable work from the rest of the capable cast, Nobel Son constantly crosses the fine line between clever and severely self-indulgent. On the one hand, we appreciate that Miller is trying to enliven a genre that's been done to near death in the decade post-Pulp Fiction. Yet he's guilty of many of the same Tarantino like tricks that have doomed this genre. The only thing "nobel" here are the intentions. Their realization is another matter entirely.