Forgive my absence over the past week. I visited family in Mississippi and tend not to notify people when my apartment is vulnerable to theft.
I went to the black comedy “Nobel Son” instead of “Punisher: War Zone,” because the latter film sounded too morbid for my tastes. Imagine my surprise when the former started rolling with the graphic, lengthy severing of a thumb, one of the more gruesome scenes I’ve witnessed at the movies this year. Ah, but it could have been worse, I’m told; “Punisher: War Zone” features a sequence where a man devours another’s liver.
Ah, but wait, “Nobel Son” has an entire subplot dedicated to cannibalism. Its protagonist, Barkley Michaelson (Bryan Grenberg), is a Ph.D. candidate who has devoted his scholastic career to the study of man consuming man. “That’s good,” he replies when a pretty girl informs him that she’s a vegetarian, “because you’ll taste better if I ever have to eat you.” I’ll have to remember that line, because it works for him.
By the film’s end, people may or may not have been eaten, millions of dollars will have changed hands, bodies have turned up, and a Nobel Prize has been awarded. The medal goes towards Eli (Alan Rickman), Barkley’s chemist genius of a father. Eli’s malevolent, stingy, philandering, narcissistic, and an array of other pejorative adjectives. Eli’s colleagues are barely able to veil their disgust for the man long enough for him to issue a derogatory remark about their intellectual acumen. Even his wife Sarah (Mary Steenburgen) has difficulty celebrating her husband’s win, and that’s considering that the prize money will make them millionaires.
Alas, not for long. Barkley is kidnapped by Thaddeus (Shawn Hatosy), one hell of a mean severer of thumbs with a grudge against Eli, or maybe Barkley, or both. The price for Barkley: $2 million. Eli would just as soon keep the money and relinquish his son, but Sarah won’t have that, and the plot twists begin.
I have a policy about discussing plot twists: if the film is good, I avoid it, and if it’s not, then I’ll discuss it. This time, I’ll make an exception and keep the developments to myself. While I didn’t like “Nobel Son,” I suspect many will.
What I will do is note the film’s reliance on improbability, on characters who spontaneously develop extraordinary skills (solitary and quick assembly of a Mini-Cooper) and clever plots to counter those fielded against them. When the crooks in “Ocean’s Eleven” concoct a labyrinthine plot to make a fortune, we can believe it for the runtime. When civilians hatch schemes that match the Ocean gang’s plots in complexity, and proceed to flawlessly execute them, suspension of disbelief becomes suspended.
The film’s not short on name talent: aside from Rickman and Steenburgen, there are roles filled by Bill Pullman, Danny DeVito, Eliza Dushku, Ted Danson, and Ernie Hudson. Dushku plays a poet named City Hall, which makes her sound pretty important until you watch her perform at open mic night. It’s one of those ensembles where characters drift in and out, most with nothing of significance to do or say, saddled with expository dialogue and character traits that might have meant something in an earlier draft of the screenplay. And as for the morbidity, it made me wish I’d just bit the liver and seen “Punisher” instead.