Nobel Son is about a despicable Nobel Prize laureate (Allan Rickman)
whose son is kidnapped for the Nobel money. It combines the elements of a
thriller with black comedy and hip editing techniques, following kinda
sorta in the footsteps of Tarantino and Guy Richie.
For nearly three years, no distributor was willing to take a chance on
this film. It was lensed in October-November of 2005 and screened at
Tribeca in April of 2007. It finally made it into theaters in December of
2008. The distribution moguls were correct in their assessment that Nobel Son
had no box office potential. In fact, it is one of the worst box office
performers in history. (Details to the right.) Excluding Roger Ebert, the critics were not much
more liberal with their words than the audiences were with their wallets.
So what's wrong with Nobel Son?
To begin with, it fails to pass the basic minimum hurdle for the
thriller genre, which is that the plot must make sense upon second
viewing, once all the secrets are known. I won't go into detail since this
is a thriller with absolutely nothing else going for it but wacky plot
twists, but I will warn you that if you re-watch it after all the veils
have been lifted, you'll just be scratching your head.
The other major problem is that it pairs baddie against baddie,
breaking all the Vince McMahon rules of drama. Rickman is supposed to be
playing a terrible human being: arrogant, philandering, and dishonest. The
flaw of the film's basic structure is that the character is interesting,
and Rickman is a complex and fascinating actor. Couple that with the fact
that the rest of the parts are obnoxious, boring, crazy, underwritten, or
totally irrelevant, and the result is that Rickman's sneering,
insufferable blighter is by far the most intriguing, and arguably even the
most likeable, character in the film. The director thus managed to turn
his strongest asset (Rickman) into a liability, because I was actually
rooting for Rickman to outsmart everyone and keep his money, even though
the script assures us that he did not deserve his Nobel. If the film had
been cast with Alec Baldwin or James Woods as the professor, at least we
would be rooting for the right team.
A third point of irritation: as part of the theoretically hip editing
techniques, the film uses wacky cartoon background noises, like the
"whooshing" of Speedy Gonzales flashing by. All it needed was the
trademark "tinkling foot noises" to qualify it for the Hanna-Barbera hall
of fame. Except, of course, that the Magilla Gorilla cartoons had more
Finally, the authors didn't do a lot of research into the life of
Nobel-winning scientists. You don't find many of them (probably none)
teaching survey courses in amphitheater-style classrooms, or grading their
own students in such massive classes, as Rickman's character does. Then
again, that doesn't matter much, because nothing else in the film was
There is one clever scene. The kidnappers use a particularly convoluted
scheme to pick up the ransom money in a suburban shopping mall while
dozens of cops watch the drop point. That scene was ridiculous and
improbable, but original, and a nice bit of genre fun - the sole oasis in
a barren Sahara of a script.