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When you hear that Alan Rickman is starring in something called Nobel Son, you imagine something grandiose—a period piece perhaps, a tale undoubtedly full of intrigue and threaded with themes of loyalty, self-sacrifice, and honor. Or you note the title’s spelling and figure it’s about a guy who wins the Nobel Prize, and that at least one or two of the above descriptors apply anyway.
Alas, though the real Nobel Son does peripherally involve a prizewinner, the film not only lacks honor, it’s an undignified mess that should embarrass Rickman and everyone else involved. From its very beginning, writer-director Randall Miller strains to be edgy: With techno music pounding in the background, the narration starts with, God help us, a quote from a 16th-century French philosopher. “I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead,” our protagonist, Barkley (Bryan Greenberg), parrots, further going on about the “psychology of depravity” and how he’s always been drawn to bad guys, as we watch someone get robbed and mutilated by an unknown assailant.
Cut to Barkley’s chemistry-professor father, Eli (Rickman), screwing a student on a desk, and his forensic-psychologist mother, Sarah (Mary Steenburgen), talking depravity herself in a class for investigators. We learn that Barkley is a dirt-poor Ph.D student, studying anthropology with a specialty in cannibalism. We catch a random scene of some mechanic, with title letters labeling him thaddeus james, autodidact. There are whooshes, blurred action, fast edits. And always: thump thump thump thump.
Give Nobel Son five minutes and you’ll guess that it was made by a first-time filmmaker, likely a recent grad. Sit through its entirety, the plot and execution getting increasingly ridiculous, and you’ll be sure of it. But Miller isn’t a novice director—just a particularly bad one, with gems such as 1995’s Sinbad-starring Houseguest and 2005’s syrupy Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School to his name. Miller’s wife, Jody Savin, who helped him write the latter, also gets a screenwriting credit here.
This could have been an entertainingly bad thriller if it weren’t trying so damn hard. The cast is made up of actors most people take somewhat seriously—Eliza Dushku, Danny DeVito, and Bill Pullman also have roles—so when you see, for example, Rickman’s unrealistically arrogant Nobel winner lifting an ass cheek to let out some gas or Dushku’s poet/big ball of need writhing and babbling like a farther-gone Elizabeth Wurtzel, it’s a distraction. Their characters’ cartoonishness is mirrored in the plot, which is somewhat compelling at the beginning as Shawn Hatosy’s Thaddeus stalks and kidnaps Barkley (turns out it’s personal). But then Thaddeus’ straightforward attempt to nab a $2 million ransom from Eli gets bogged down with too many twists and terrible edits to make much sense. And the thump thump thump thump, part of it courtesy of the Chemical Brothers, never, ever lets up.
What does cannibalism and that 16th-century philosopher have to do with any of this? The connection is tenuous at best, but it has something to do with the fact that Eli’s a jerk. His Nobel comes with an asterisk, he treats his family and associates like trash, and eventually all the people around him want their comeuppance. Make sense? I didn’t think so, either.