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Nobel Son

This film, which, lest the rest of this sentence lead you astray, I quite enjoyed, begins with what is possibly the most ill-advised opening scene I've ever witnessed in any movie ever. This is a crime caper and con job picture, with a very tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic sense of humor. It's intricately-constructed, clever, full of distinct characters, and an overall fun romp. So when the movie begins with a lengthy and closely-framed scene of an ATM patron getting his thumb graphically hacked off in a sequence that wouldn't feel totally out of place in a Friday the 13th flick, provided that Jason could limit himself to digits, it is doing itself something of a disservice. The sort of audience that would enjoy a lightweight yet sly and unpredictable film about elaborate and manipulative criminal antics will have some inevitable overlap with gore-hounds, but it certainly won't be so big as to justify beginning with such an off-putting scene. This film slunk unnoticed through theaters and took its sweet time in being released to DVD; it's been unfairly overlooked, and it's not doing itself any favors by getting off on such a wrong foot.

Barkley Michaelson has a jackass for a father. When said father, professor Eli Michaelson, wins the Nobel prize in chemistry, it understandably doesn't sit too well with nearly anyone-Barkley, Eli's fellow teachers, and one Thaddeus James, who is nursing quite a tremendous grudge. While his coed-boffing dad's already unmanageable ego swells to epic proportions, Barkley is reduced to carrying around a slowly decomposing paper cup with which to get free refills at the local coffee shop, where he not-quite stalks a beautiful brunette who comes in for regular poetry readings. An insidious plot forms, intended to rob Eli of his Nobel prize money and his reputation, with Barkley as leverage. Barkely commiserates, as much as is possible, with his agitated kidnapper, hoping to squeak out of the affair alive and unblemished. An elaborate ransom drop is staged. And then, just when you think you know how things are going, they start going elsewhere. Roles reverse, first unexpectedly, and then quite efficiently. Though it features both, this is not strictly a cops-and-robbers story, but rather a tale of smart and sneaky people trying to out-clever one another by whatever means, usually unscrupulous, are necessary; one is reminded of the scheming cast of Ruthless People, with which Nobel Son shares two stars. While not a mystery either, the film nevertheless keeps you guessing. The less said about the plot itself, the more fun you'll have going in.

Our two leads, Barkley and Thaddeus, are probably the only two faces you aren't likely to recognize. Alan Rickman plays Eli as a loathsome egotist who reacts to news of his son's abduction first with literal disbelief, and then with frustration at its inconvenient timing. Bill Pullman is an investigating detective with more on his mind than the case. Danny DeVito is a tenant of the Michaelsons with pronounced OCD, and Eliza Dushku shines as an art chick who wears her emotions on her surface like a raw nerve; it's the role she was born to play. Ultimately, though, it's our two adversaries who keep the wheels spinning throughout, mentally fencing for dominance of the situation. The caveat is that while we're curious to see how it all winds up, we're never really invested emotionally; no one particularly warms our hearts or inspires genuine sympathy. Even Barkley has a creepy side he's not afraid to let out in pursuit of personal victory. This is a relatively minor quibble. Even if we don't really care who wins out, the ride is fun enough to justify the investment of our time and attention.

The disturbing opening scene does turn out to be important, but the level of violence it depicts is really out of tune with the film that follows it. There is also a bit too much techno/electronica in the soundtrack for my own preferences; yours may differ. I'm convinced that the film cheats a bit on one important detail in order to enhance its own cleverness, though you're unlikely to pick up on it after a single viewing. I'll only say that it cheats in the exact same way as did Body Heat (with which it also shares a star). At least it's stealing its narrative subterfuge from a quality source.

-review by Matt Murray

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