Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tribeca Part 3: Nobel Son better Lookout

The first movie I saw at Tribeca this year was Nobel Son, and despite the presence of a fairly strong cast, including Alan Rickman, Mary Steenburgen, and Bill Pullman, it was an inauspicious start.

Rickman plays Eli Michaelson, an insufferable egomaniacal lout of a college professor whose head just swells bigger when he learns he’s won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Eli cheats on his wife Sarah (Steenburgen) and looks down on his son, Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) because Barkley is studying anthropology, more specifically cannibalism. The femme fatale, a poetess who calls herself City Hall (Eliza Dushku), seduces Barkley, who soon finds himself kidnapped by self-proclaimed autodidact Thaddeus (Shawn Hatosy).

If this already sounds a bit overstuffed, believe me I haven’t begun to scratch the surface. I didn’t even mention that Sarah is a brilliant forensic psychiatrist or that Danny DeVito plays the obsessive compulsive who rents the upstairs room. It’s not really clear why this particular family would need to rent out the spare room, but then there’s an awful lot here that doesn’t make sense. The kidnapping plot and the subsequent revenge plot are of the type that rely on a vast multitude of unlikely coincidences to work, and yet somehow they pretty much all come together.

It’s all presented with a surfeit of annoyingly gratuitous vertiginous camerawork and rapid-fire editing (including split screen). Director Randall Miller, who co-wrote the film with his wife, Jody Savin, also edited the film himself, and the model for the shooting and editing appears to be Tony Scott. I get a headache just writing that name, so I wasn’t impressed with how convincingly Miller copies his style.

Rickman is still pretty fun to watch, and Dushku is way too talented to be playing such a ridiculous role. I liked her character, but it soon became clear that I was responding to the actress’s energy, and by the end, I had no idea who she was playing. Greenberg was also fine, but he has one long heavy scene with Hatosy in which Barkley undergoes some kind of sudden and unmotivated personality change. The writing is flashy, like the directing, but sloppy.

I also saw The Lookout this week, with Pablo. Not at Tribeca, obviously, but this was a much stronger example of the caper film.

Pablo didn't care for it, but I thought it was very smart entertainment. Great performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, and Matthew Goode, a sharp script by Scott Frank, who also directed. He keeps things fairly simple and clean, and lets the twists and turns of the plot and our growing attachment to the characters drive the suspense. Isla Fisher plays the requisite seductress in this one, and I thought she was solid. She’s not necessarily a better actress than Dushku, but the script presented her as a real person, rather than some convenient construct whose personality shifts around to suit a convoluted plot.


StephaniePisces said...

The electricity between you and Pablo is palatable. Goodbye, Siskel and Ebert, hello, Josh and Pablo!!!

Keep it up, boys. If you do your jobs well, you could end up like this:

Anonymous said...

I trust that Josh is right on when he says that Nobel Son is contrived and convoluted, but this saddens me because the premise is a compelling one. Sometimes a negative review can drive me to the film, or to the defense of a film I've already seen, but I'm guessing that Nobel Son would only disappoint.