I admit that I love dark comedies. Something about the mixture of violence, thrills, and comedy just make a perfect amalgam of cinema to entertain my slightly off-kilter sensibilities. When I saw that the film Nobel Son was opening up at the local theatre, I vaguely recalled that the trailer seemed interesting and the cast recognizable. So I said what the hey? I think that the closest cousin I can manage to cull from memory would be the great, underrated gem Suicide Kings from a few years back. Randall Miller's film isn't quite as entertaining as that one, but as far as tone and feel go, it resembles it well. Rather then a truly great story that stands up besides the jokes, a la In Bruges, Nobel Son falls into the trap of having many kooky characters that just happen to enter each other's lives to allow for the shenanigans. It feels as though the people were created first and then the story second, letting the puzzle pieces fall into place. Don't get me wrong, the eccentric players are part of the charm, I just would have liked them to be a bit more real than so obviously playing for jokes and clichés.
The tale itself isn't anything really new. Take any old kidnapping plot where the victim becomes a part of the plan and double-crossing soon takes over upon completion; erase a few adjectives and verbs; and Mad Libs in the blanks to freshen it up. A jerk of a father wins the Nobel Prize for his work in the field of chemistry, whereupon a man who may or may not be his illegitimate child, whose mother's husband is whom the father's winning work was stolen from, decides to kidnap the man's true son for the two million dollar purse. It's a bit convoluted and Miller enjoys throwing in chemistry jargon throughout to impress us, whether what is spoken about molecules is even true, don't ask me, I kind of zoned during those passages. However, the highly coincidental series of events and relationships does allow for it all to come together. The kidnapped son ends up proving to his assailant that he'd love to get back at his father any way he can, and the two hatch an elaborate plan, involving the full reconstruction of a car within two hours, to steal the money clean and not let anyone get hurt
besides an innocent man soon to be without a thumb. Throw in a beautiful, yet insane girl, who you know is involved more than let on; a detective on the case who is also in love with the hostage's mother, a co-worker; and a "reformed" obsessive-compulsive tenant, and you can understand how off the wall it could potentially get.
Again, the story is pretty airtight and coherent, besides some logistical questions like putting a working car together in that short of time by one man, putting a car in an above the garage apartment, (I think you have to look the other way on this one), and just the sheer amount of photos and documents that are readily available to prove guilt. As far as motivations and intelligence, all that is understood and believable. No one here is really likable at all; everyone has an agenda and whether it took the events in the film for some to act on them or not, they definitely weren't innocents. The Michaelsons are one messed up family that deserves the chaos, but revenge is always served best cold, I guess. And maybe it really is more vicious to devour a man while he is still alive then dead.
Those story elements all pretty much run their course without pause, so one doesn't get much opportunity to question it, or care whether it is all kosher. Instead, the real focus is on the characters. Those that standout are the ones with the most issues. Sure Alan Rickman does his usual smarmy best as the aging lothario professor with an ego that cannot be measured and Mary Steenburgen plays the cerebral analyst, always looking and deciphering things before the cops on the case can, but that kind of stuff is expected. Even the star, Bryan Greenberg's Barkley, the son of the aforementioned actors, does his norm. Add a few corny, cheeseball lines, 80's music, and delete the bloodyou'd think he came right out of "October Road". No, where the genius lies is in the criminals and supporting roles. Shawn Hatosy, as the half brother/mastermind, has made a career out of playing semi-intelligent headcases that switch from harmless innocence to manic, homicidal delinquency. His Thaddeus James is the perfect villain here because what he does has merit, so when it all starts to unravel, his compassion is believable. My favorites, though, are Eliza Dushku as the love interest and Danny DeVito as the obsessive-compulsive. DeVito is hysterical as Gastner, going through his mental checklists in a calculating monotone and nervous disgust. But if you want true insanity, Dushku delivers in spades. As City Hall, she is one messed up deviant. A psychopath girlfriend type, her actions and artwork juxtaposed with her beauty and sexuality would make any guy confused and willing to play along.
Nobel Son is a nice entry to the genre and a character piece with a lot of good. I appreciate that Miller tries to be creative and add his own flair, but in doing so, the aesthetic becomes a bit ho-hum and ordinary. The sharp cuts and blurring tricks help deflect what we see until the truth is revealed, and the close-up camera work helps add a layer of detail for us to enter the movie, yet it's all been done before. Even a gimmick that works at times becomes a little overkill with its abundance, however, that final ticker-typed name and occupation caption made all the others before it worth the trouble.