Nobody in the film industry wants to be pigeonholed. Personal assistants long to be studio heads, gaffers want to direct, and name actors fantasize about hanging it up and doing something that, y'know, matters. In such an environment, director Randall Miller's career is fairly typical. Using his 1990 feel-good, film-school short, Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School, as his calling card, Miller broke into the business but got stuck helming kids' shows, TV melodramas, and forgettable African American comedies like Class Act and The 6th Man. Hoping to break out of those niches, he expanded Marilyn Hotchkiss into a 2006 feature, which paved the way for last summer's crowd-pleasing indie success, Bottle Shock, and a heightened commercial profile.
Now with Bottle Shock on his résumé, Miller has enough clout to see the release of the film he made between Marilyn Hotchkiss and Bottle Shock, which, as he's acknowledged, is the sort of movie he's not normally associated with. He describes it as "dark, twisted, edgy, not always PC, with a hot girl, witty dialogue, in-your-face visuals, music pumping from end to end, bold and brash, unforgiving." Employing many of the same actors and crew members from his two previous features, the crime thriller Nobel Son represents a filmmaker best known for feel-good trying to get in touch with his bad side. It doesn't suit him.
Nobel Son would have been helped enormously if its cockeyed story could at least claim to be based on true events. Directionless Ph.D. candidate Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) lives in the shadow of his overbearing genius father, Eli (Alan Rickman), whose inflated ego swells further after he's informed he'll be receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. But before Barkley can meet his obnoxious dad and sympathetic mom (Mary Steenburgen) at the airport for their trip to Sweden, two seemingly unrelated events occur: Barkley beds a gorgeous artist named City Hall (Eliza Dushku) and gets kidnapped by Thaddeus (Shawn Hatosy), an unhinged young man who claims to be Eli's bastard son and aims to use Barkley to extort $2 million out of dear old dad. Initially terrified, Barkley convinces Thaddeus to cut him in on the deal, and they're soon working together to fleece the man they both hate.
Anyone who suffered through the Tarantino knockoffs of the 1990s knows that no filmic crime caper will run smoothly, so the pleasures of Nobel Son should come from the nasty complications that arise in Thaddeus and Barkley's plan. Unfortunately, Miller, working from a script co-written with wife Jody Savin, seems so ill at ease with the basic building blocks of the genre that Nobel Son quickly announces itself as one of those misbegotten clunkers where just about every creative decision isn't merely wrong but tone-deaf.
Crucial among these decisions is Nobel Son's irritatingly frenetic visual and aural design. Cinematographer Michael J. Ozier's camera zips around like he's jockeying to direct Ocean's 19, while Paul Oakenfold and Mark Adler's electronica-rock score feels better suited to a sports-car commercial. Nobel Son's desperately "edgy" vibe extends to all aspects of the film but is most noticeable in the cavalcade of sarcastic one-liners delivered by a cast that's been told to give their characters maximum quirkiness. The more experienced actors mostly keep from embarrassing themselves, but the younger cast members are painful to watch. As the tempestuous City Hall, Dushku is yet another attractive up-and-comer who looks sexy but can't act sexy—an important distinction for any aspiring femme fatale. Hatosy fails to achieve even Christian Slater levels of smarmy creepiness, and as for Greenberg, he's so utterly charmless that you can't help but think that maybe Eli is right about the kid being a total waste of space.
Miller may have longed to make a "dark, twisted" movie, but as the kidnapping plot goes predictably awry and cons within cons get sprung, it becomes obvious that what's missing from Nobel Son isn't so much a thrill for the dark side but an understanding of ordinary people's darker desires. Whether it's last year's bleak Before the Devil Knows You're Dead or John Dahl's caustically funny The Last Seduction, the best cold-blooded crime movies are populated by shockingly relatable people who have rejected their better natures. Nobel Son goes the other direction, turning most of its participants into oddballs, eccentrics, or the tragically hip. What's worse, Miller tries to spin his increasingly ludicrous narrative into a treatise on family dysfunction, the limitations of academia, and (most unconvincingly) a metaphor for spiritual cannibalism. The thematic posturing is almost as empty as the movie's sleek surface. In going against the grain and making his first non-feel-good film, Miller has in a way succeeded: Nobel Son feels awful.