No, not the thumb! It’s what separates man from beast!
—Barkley (Bryan Greenberg)
When you hear that Alan Rickman is starring in a film called Nobel Son, you imagine something grandiose. A period piece perhaps, a tale full of intrigue and wickedness, threaded with themes of loyalty, self-sacrifice, and honor. Or maybe you note the spelling and figure it’s about a guy who wins the Nobel Prize, with at least one or two of the above descriptors applying as well.
Alan Rickman, Mary Steenburgen, Bryan Greenberg, Shawn Hatosy, Bill Pullman, Eliza Dushku, Danny DeVito, Ted Danson
US theatrical: 5 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
The real Nobel Son does peripherally involve a prize winner, but it not only lacks honor, it’s an undignified mess that should embarrass Rickman and everyone else involved. The opening is indicative: with techno music pounding in the background, Barkley (Bryan Greenburg) quotes a 16th-century French philosopher. “I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead.” He goes on about “the psychology of depravity” and how he’s always been drawn to bad guys while 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), explaining depravity in a class for investigators. We learn that Barkley is a dirt-poor PhD student, studying anthropology with a specialty in cannibalism, and not on the best terms with his dad. We see a mechanic at work, a subtitle labeling “Thaddeus James, Autodidact.” Each character is introduced via 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 increasingly ridiculous entirety, and you’ll be sure of it. But Randall Miller isn’t a new director, just a bad one, with the 1995 Sinbad vehicle Houseguest, 2005’s syrupy Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School (starring Steenbergen), and this year’s Bottle Shock (starring Rickman) to his credit.
The new movie’s first problem is that the cast (which also includes Danny DeVito and Bottle Shock veterans Eliza Dushku and Bill Pullman) seems somewhat serious. Thus, when Rickman’s arrogant Nobel winner lifts an ass cheek to let out some gas, it’s a bit of a distraction. Dushku plays vacant poet/big ball of need, whom Barkley approaches at a spoken-word open mike (a venue that provides the film’s most amusing moments, with participants reading drivel such as, “Damp with cum, I fell back onto the bench, and suddenly I could understand the woodpeckers!”). Her name is City Hall, and yes, she’d love to go out with the charmless stranger. In fact, City suggests they just skip the courting and go straight to her creepy apartment, where she writhes and babbles like a farther-gone Elizabeth Wurtzel. “Barkley, am I beautiful?” she asks after she ditches her clothes on her rooftop bedroom. You get the strong feeling that if he were to hesitate, City Hall would become Sidewalk Splatter.
Such cartoonishness infuses the plot as well, which has Thaddeus (Shawn Hatosy) stalking and kidnaping Barkley (turns out, it’s personal). But Thaddeus’ initially straightforward attempt to nab a $2 million ransom from Eli is soon bogged down with too many twists and silly disguises to make much sense. And the thump thump thump thump, some of it courtesy of the Chemical Brothers, never, ever lets up.
What do cannibalism and that 16th-century philosopher have to do with any of it? It’s tenuous, but the chowing-down-on-the-living-versus-the-dead thing is connected to Eli’s dark and gnarly past. His Nobel comes with an asterisk, a secret that only Thaddeus knows. He treats his family and associates like trash, which everyone knows but seems to accept because of his “genius.” Eventually they want retribution. Get it? I didn’t, either.