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 it.
It was filmed 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. Among films in 600 or more theaters, it had the third-worst
opening weekend of all-time, grossing $333,000 in 893 theaters. That proved to
be the highlight of its theatrical distribution. The following weekend it set
the all-time record for the biggest drop in history from weekend one to
weekend two: 95%. I'm not sure what the record is for the biggest drop from
weekend two to weekend three, but it has a shot at that one as well, with
96.7%. And it also owns a share of the unbeatable record for the biggest drop
from week three to week four: 100%. Of course, there was some good news. That
100% drop only represented a loss of $546.
The critics were not much more liberal with their words than the audiences
were with their wallets. Rotten Tomatoes estimates that 25% of the reviews
were positive. Metacritic estimates that the average rating was approximately
28 on a 100-point scale. To put that in perspective, the Razzie "worst
picture" winner, The Love Guru, averaged 24 on the same scale.
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 interesting
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 credible either.
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
Eliza Dushku was kinda sorta
naked, in that her buns were only partially covered by a small, thin pair of
(Bryan Greenberg provided the only real nudity.)
In the interest of fairness, or maybe just because it's utterly baffling,
I'm duty- and honor-bound to report that this film is rated 7.8 at IMDb.
Here's your recipe for instant cinematic genius: a melodrama about the
tragic personal consequences of international terrorism - written and directed
by the director of Bridget Jones' Diary. Oh, by the way - she has no previous
credits for fiction writing. The less said about this, the better. It began
with honorable, noble ambitions but descended into a cheesefest with
ham-handed scripting, and several of the sub-plots just seemed to disappear in
an abrupt ending.
The history of the project has been riddled with tragedy. The novel, which
is about a terrorist act on a 9/11 scale in London, hit the newsstands on the
very day of the London subway bombings. Then the movie premiered at Sundance
on the day Heath Ledger died. Given Ledger's status in the film community, his
death would have been distracting enough if he had no connection to the film
at all, but as it turns out, Ledger is the father of Michelle Williams' baby,
and she is the star of this film.
Williams is the film's only real plus, but that's a substantial plus. I had
no idea she had this kind of talent. Her performance is spectacularly good, as
good as or better than the female performances nominated for this year's
Oscar. She might even have earned that nomination because 2008 was a year with
few spectacular scene-stealing performances, but Incendiary was not eligible
for Oscar consideration. It screened at Sundance and Cannes and had a brief
theatrical run in the UK, but it never appeared in any theaters in the
USA. (The UK data: 16 theaters on October 24th. Total gross for that weekend:
The good news: lots of nudity
from Michelle Williams. I did that film clip linked to the left, but all
the collages below come from third parties.