Have you ever randomly picked a vacation destination by spinning a globe with your eyes closed? The plot of "Nobel Son" works in much the same way; it spins and spins its tangled web and can end up here or there or anywhere. It's all at once a brutal dark comedy and an engrossing mystery, and it teases both the characters and the audience along with a series of deceptions and revelations and twists. This is no small task considering the demented nature of the main character's PhD thesis, which somehow forms a connection between cannibalism and a Game Boy system; it acts as a sort of thematic umbrella, under which lies a twisted story of human nature, specifically in matters of making sure certain people get what they deserve. Yes, I'm describing a very broad concept, and I admit that it doesn't do an adequate job explaining what this movie is about. But to be perfectly honest, I don't think I can give you an in-depth plot synopsis, partly because the details are difficult to sort out, but mostly because a description might spoil a number of pivotal moments.
I can, however, give you a vague idea. Let's begin with Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman), who may in fact be one of the meanest, most unlikable characters of any film this decade. He's a Chemistry teacher with an ego that sprawls out even farther than the Periodic Table of Elements. He thinks he's better than his colleagues. He isn't kind to his wife, a forensic psychologist named Sarah (Mary Steenburgen); truth be told, he cheats on her at every possible opportunity. He certainly can't cut his son a break, an eager doctorate student named Barkley (Bryan Greenberg).
One day, Eli learns that he's won the Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, Barkley is kidnapped on the day of his father's flight to Sweden. Naturally, his father doesn't believe that he's been kidnapped when the kidnapper, an insane car junkie named Thaddeus James (Shawn Hatosy), allows him to speak on the phone. But as Eli and Sarah are escorted back to their hotel after the ceremony, they open a package and discover a severed human thumb. That's when Thaddeus names his terms: $2 million in exchange for Barkley's life.
To describe any more of the plot would be pointless. Needless to say, nothing is what it seems, and just about everyone has something to hide. Take Sarah, whose training allows her to deconstruct things so thoroughly that it's virtually impossible to get anything past her. She remains mostly passive about her husband's appalling behavior throughout most of the film, although there's a sense that she knows him better than he knows himself. There's a quiet but interesting moment between her and Max Mariner (Bill Pullman), the detective assigned to Barkley's case; she hopes that the severed thumb belongs to her son, because if it doesn't, that means the kidnapper is dangerously methodical.
As for Mariner, he seems to know that something about Barkley's situation isn't quite right. He goes from place to place, interviewing everyone who might know something. One of these people is the next-door neighbor, Gastner (Danny DeVito), a recovering obsessive-compulsive. Another person is City Hall (Eliza Dushku), who Barkley met at a poetry reading at the local bookstore. I honestly don't know what to make of her, and her name is certainly of no help. Then again, given the nature of the plot, one may not have to understand her. One look at her apartment is enough to unsettle even the darkest of minds. She's an artist with a lot of baggage, all of which carries over into her work. Paintings cover a lot of wall space, and they're all nothing more than muddy smears of color.
And then there's Thaddeus. Why on earth would he kidnap the son of a Nobel Prize winner? All I can say is that he has his reasons. When we first meet him, everything is clear-cut in his mind; he has a plan, and he intends to follow it to a tee. But then he kidnaps Barkley, and almost immediately, nothing is clear-cut anymore. Plans change. New lies are concocted. Alliances are formed and then broken. As is the case with City Hall, trying to understand Thaddeus is most likely unnecessary. Even though he explains himself, what motivates him is not as important as what he does.
I'm now realizing that this review has been annoyingly vague. But unless you want me to spoil the whole thing, I don't have much of a choice. Not that it matters a great deal; the mystery in this film is so bizarre and meandering that it's really nothing more than a distortion of someone's perception. Part of the fun was not knowing which direction the plot would go in, which is to say that I was continuously surprised all throughout. "Nobel Son" is an odd but engaging film that indirectly analyzes human behavior and the consequences it can bring. It's also a wonderful vehicle for Alan Rickman, who can play nasty like few actors I've seen in a long time. What a deplorable man his character is, so unfeeling, so arrogant, so greedy. There's never a moment when you don't wish that something horrible would happen to him. He actually makes Ebenezer Scrooge seem downright pleasant. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he never won the Nobel Prize.