Nobel Son

Tricia Olszewski

Nobel Son not only lacks honor, but it's also an undignified mess that should embarrass star Alan Rickman and everyone else involved.

Nobel Son

Director: Randall Miller
Cast: Alan Rickman, Mary Steenburgen, Bryan Greenberg, Shawn Hatosy, Bill Pullman, Eliza Dushku, Danny DeVito, Ted Danson
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Freestyle Releasing
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2008-12-05 (Limited release)
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.

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

Time has dulled the once vibrant approach of the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex.

When drummer Jimmy Chamberlin quit or was fired from the Smashing Pumpkins in 2009, he announced that he was going to focus his attention on the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex. This was good news. The Complex's 2005 debut Life Begins Again was freewheeling and colorful, filled to the brim with psychedelia, heavy pop, and heaping dose of post-rock. Billy Corgan was there, Rob Dickinson was there, even Bill Medley contributed to a track.

Keep reading... Show less

Jesús Carrasco's debut is a tale of psychological brutality that is as rich as it is slow.

If you were born in the '80s or '90s, you may relate to the experience of picking up a videogame -- one frowned upon by the gaming community for being too difficult or frustrating -- and finding it delightfully to your taste, as it recalls the unwieldy and impractical adventures you grew up with. Such a game, you might feel, belongs to another age.

I could say the same of Jesús Carrasco's debut novel Out in the Open, the original edition of which caused quite the sensation in 2013, when it was first published in Spain. Reading it now, in Margaret Jull Costa's translation, feels very much like reading a book from another age, with a pace and a sense of focus that are quite unlike those of most published fiction today.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.