December 11, 2008

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Nobel Son (R)
A pompous jerk wins a Nobel Prize but has to cut short his basking in his own glory to deal with the kidnapping of his slacker son in Nobel Son, a weird mystery horror crime caper.

Poor Eliza Dushku, who shows up here playing the most hateable kind of performance artist. While she awaits the mid-season premiere (followed by the speedy canceling — ahem, FOX) of Joss Whedon’s new series Dollhouse, she has to make due with thin soup like this role. Her agent really needs to beat the bushes for a role that isn’t a sooty-eyed sad-girl with some kind of psychosis before she finds herself permanently cemented in this character.

Dushku here is City Hall, the poet who captures the eye of Barkley (Bryan Greenberg), a Ph.D. candidate struggling to finish his thesis on cannibalism (yep, cannibalism). His mom, Sarah (Mary Steenburgen), is a forensic psychiatrist who teaches cops about the inner workings of serial killers. His father is Eli (Alan Rickman), a fatuous professor and famous scientist who finds out that he’s won the Nobel Prize for his work. This honor is particularly delicious for Eli because he is thoroughly hated at his university (as well this student-and-colleague-bedding ego-monster should be). He is so wrapped up in his award and his fêting by the Swedes that it takes the arrival, via express delivery, of a severed thumb for him to take several calls regarding Barkley’s kidnapping seriously (an accompanying letter explains it’s Barkley’s thumb and the only part of him his parents will get back until money changes hands).

Meanwhile, Barkley is a blubbering wad of fear as his kidnapper Thaddeus (Shawn Hatosy) explains his plans to de-thumb him and squeeze $2 million out of his parents. Even more terrifying, as Thaddeus describes his plans, Barkley learns that they have some things in common.

I don’t think it’s giving away much to say that there are twists in this dreary caper and things that seem bizarre even for a cannibalism scholar in love with a gothy poet. Nobel Son takes a weirdly comic tone for much of the movie, a tone that doesn’t completely fit with all the thumb-severing and the familial tension. I’m not sure what this movie wanted to be — a black comedy, a gory mystery with a sharp humorous edge. It comes off as gallows humor delivered to the wrong audience — overly morbid while trying to be cutesy. And the performances feel strange, like at any given time two people in a scene aren’t going off quite the same version of the script.

Nobel Son isn’t uniformly awful — it has its moments of mild cleverness and not all of the comedy completely misses the mark. But it feels dull and muddy, like the clear picture of what this film was trying to show us just never fully developed. C-

Rated R for some violent gruesome images, language and sexuality. Directed by Randall Miller and written by Miller and Jody Savin, Nobel Son is an hour and 50 minutes long and distributed by Freestyle Releasing.