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There are fundamental principles which apply when making a movie. Sometimes an innovative director will try something new and evocative and if they’re any good they may be able to change how the rules apply. But in general the long standing traditions of film often prove to work the best. Nobel Son is the product of a director who either has no clue what the rules are or has woefully overestimated his ability for worthwhile innovation. Whichever case applies the result is a complete disaster which should be offered up to film students as a classic example of how not to make a movie.
Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman) is the world’s biggest and most unabashed egomaniac. A renowned professor of chemistry, he regularly cheats on his wife with his students, berates his son for not following in his glorious footsteps, and generally mocks or abuses anything or anyone who crosses his path. He’s a completely intolerable grade-A jackass, a condition his family and friends think could never get any worse. That is, until it’s announced that Dr. Michaelson has won the Nobel Prize.
On the day the Michaelson family is scheduled to fly to Sweden to attend the awards ceremony, Eli’s son Barkley (Bryan Greenbberg) is kidnapped and held for ransom by Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy), a man with a serious grudge against Eli and a bizarre addiction to Cooper Minis (can you say shameless product placement?). What follows is an intricate plot that could have been rather brilliant in the hands of a worthy writer and director. Unfortunately those responsibilities fall to Randall Miller who fails miserably at both.
As Thaddeus the kidnapper’s story unfolds, opportunities for intriguing twists and turns appear. Miller proves with each and every opportunity that he has no clue how to pull any of them off. To surprise an audience you lead them in one direction then stun and amaze them when later on you reveal what actually happened. Miller seems to think his viewers will be equally thrilled if you show them all your cards up front or drop so many hints that it’s easy to guess what’s really going on. His feeble attempts are like watching a child who can’t keep a secret and blurts out the surprise before the present has been opened. It’s not just sad, it’s frustrating.
Miller not only fails at plot management, he fouls up the comic relief as well. The movie makes occasional attempts at dark humor, but it consistently goes astray. I’ll admit that I laughed, but most of the time it wasn’t because the moment was funny; it was because the effort was so misguided. The saddest follies fall to Ted Danson and Danny DeVito whose token appearances are downright depressing. Even their considerable comedic talents fall flat in the mire of Miller’s sour writing.
As if all of this weren’t distracting and excruciating enough, Paul Oakenfold tacks on a techno-driven score that is so completely misplaced and overbearing it feels like a deaf man mixed it into the film. There is a time and place for certain types of music in a movie; Miller and Oakenfold botch each and every cue. The music is at best annoying and at worst comparable to having someone sticking needles in your ear in an effort to poke your eyes out from the inside.
The only bright spot in Nobel Son is the cast. Rickman is wickedly marvelous in the role of the loathsome Eli, but that’s to be expected. Whether he’s the Sheriff of Nottingham or Severus Snape, the man is the master of playing characters audiences love to hate. Unfortunately I was so busy grimacing over Miller’s bizarre camera angles, awful pacing and wretched sense of storytelling there was no time to revel in Rickman’s brilliantly detestable performance. Mary Steenburgen is likewise typecast in her traditional role of the longsuffering wife, but even she manages to make something of it. Her turn as Sarah Michaelson shows a surprising dark spark Steenburgen doesn’t often get to play up. It’s hard to put any blame on the actors. They’ve got their stuff together… it’s the director who drops the ball.
Nobel Son is one of the year’s biggest wastes. If you do see it, allow me to offer one bit of advice: approximately ten minutes into the movie there’s a good chance you’ll feel a weighty desire to leave the theatre and ask for your money back. Don’t fight that urge. Go, get your refund, and don’t look back.