A good friend of mine—who I think was being polite because I’d taken him to the screening—complained that while he had liked Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, he’d lost patience with it once he realized it was all posturing and attitude. I couldn’t entirely argue the point. Having seen Randall Miller’s Nobel Son, however, I would now argue that at least RocknRolla has something to strike an attitude about and earns its right to posture. Nobel Son, on the other hand, is empty posturing and attitude—and it wears its terminal case of Guy Ritchie envy on its sleeve.
If Miller’s film was half—even a fourth—as cool and hip as it thinks it is, what a movie it would be! Unfortunately, it never feels like anything more than an über-nerd desperately trying to be cool—like watching Jon Heder pretending to be James Bond. If it weren’t for the better-than-average cast, Nobel Son would be a movie that would never have risen past the film-festival circuit. That it has is both a testament to star power and to the fact that putting Alan Rickman in a film doesn’t make up for everything. It helps—as does giving Mary Steenburgen a role less embarrassing than the one afforded her in Four Christmases—but it’s hardly a panacea. Giving Rickman something to do besides being condescending and ill-tempered (hardly a stretch for the actor) would have been a good starting point. Forcing him to noisily break wind in a limousine wasn’t really the answer.
Everything about Nobel Son feels forced and false—including its story. Strip the film of its pointlessly fragmented structure, and what you have is a simple tale about rude, egotistical, mildly degenerate Nobel Prize winner Eli Michaelson (Rickman), whose triumph is short-lived when his disappointment of a son, Barkley (Bryan Greenberg, Prime), is kidnapped by the fellow nobody mystifyingly noticed lurking in the potted Ficus benjamina at the celebration over Eli’s win. Said fellow turns out to be Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy, Factory Girl), who is actually out to revenge himself on Eli (I’ll let the movie reveal why), and is all too happy to split the two million in Nobel-Prize-turned-ransom money with Barkley—in exchange for making him an accomplice. Naturally, Barkley’s mother, Sarah (Mary Steenburgen), is set to pay the ransom. Eli is less pleased by this idea.
Contrived complications follow. A few of them work. (Steenburgen calmly threatening to shoot an obnoxious TV reporter is strangely gratifying—especially if you imagine the target to be Nancy Grace.) Most of them do not. The problem lies as much with Miller’s direction as with the screenplay—and probably more so. Miller has slathered the entire film with generally wrongheaded outbursts of sub-Guy Ritchie affectations that are even less effective than his attempts at creating Ritchie-esque quirky characters. His camera flourishes and postproduction jiggery-pokery are more distracting than creative—and they’re never as clever as they’re meant to be. His use of split-screen effects is particularly annoying, and whatever narrative value they might have had is dashed by the decision to print each half in uncorrected anamorphic form so that the image is unnaturally stretched.
As if this wasn’t sufficient, the movie is then absolutely drowned in a wholly inappropriate musical score that alternates between trapping the viewer in techno hell and assaulting him or her with an overworked recording of the sound of a bell reverberating that’s played backwards (the actual strike is removed). It’s the sort of thing that was kind of cool in rock music 40 years ago and really cool 77 years ago when Rouben Mamoulian used such sounds on the soundtrack of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Now, it’s not so cool, but it effectively reflects the desperate bid for hipness that pervades the whole movie.
All in all, Nobel Son is a mess and a muddle, but it’s a muddle that will have a certain undeniable appeal to admirers of Alan Rickman. Rickman is good—even if this is something he could have played in a coma—and he does keep the film watchable. But the Rickman magic that raised Miller’s Bottle Shock to the level of solid entertainment whenever he was on-screen doesn’t quite manifest itself this time. Those interested should make haste, since the turnout for this could only have been worsened if they had hung out signs warning of smallpox. Rated R for some violent gruesome images, language and sexuality.