There are some films whose plots are designed to lead us slowly down the garden path until at the end, when all is revealed, we have a goofy smile on our faces that says, yes, we were taken in and we loved it. "The Usual Suspects" is the classic in that genre. On the other hand, "Nobel Son" is one of those movies that tries to outsmart us with unexpected plot twists, unseen reversals and a pace that leaves us breathless and confused, but like so many others who try, it ends up just outsmarting itself.
It does have a lovely setup: It's the story of an egomaniacal chemistry professor - played in his best superior voice by the perfect casting of Alan Rickman - who one day wins the Nobel prize. He's unbothered by the fact that he's a compulsive adulterer, sleeping with his students, or that he looks down on his colleagues because they're not as bright as he, he despises his only son and takes his wife for granted (a beautiful Mary Steenburgen, who has an eye for the irony of all this). His son, meanwhile (Bryan Greenberg), is writing his own Ph.D. thesis on, what else, cannibalism.
As Rickman wins the Nobel and leaves for Stockholm, his son is knocked out and kidnapped for a $2 million ransom by - well, we don't know exactly at first. And everything that happens from then on serves only to confuse us more, which takes us away from the point of the film and into a guessing game; who's doing what to whom, where's the two million, and whose thumb has been sent to Rickman by the kidnappers?
"Nobel Son" was written and directed by Randall Miller, who keeps the film moving at a lightning pace, using quick cuts and an intrusive, off-balance music score, but it doesn't know when to stop to let us catch up with what we think may be happening. Bill Pullman plays an L.A. detective, Danny DeVito plays an obsessive-compulsive gardener, Eliza Dushku plays a poet named City Hall, and the kidnapper (I'm not giving anything away) is played by Shawn Hatosy. They all work very hard but ultimately all we get out of it is a headache.