'Nobel Son' is ultimately a 'Pulp Fiction' rip-off

"Nobel Son" (R)

2 1/2 stars out of 4

Ever since "Pulp Fiction" changed the landscape of American moviemaking in 1994, hoards of imitators - both good and bad - have tried to duplicate Quentin Tarantino's darkly comic, crime-thriller formula.

Opening with an extended, graphic severing of a human thumb from its owner, co-writer/director Randall Miller's "Nobel Son" bursts out of the blocks like a jackrabbit and for a good hour never lets up. Then, like so many other "Pulp Fiction" knock-offs, it suddenly runs out of steam and limps toward the finish line. Miller and co-writer Jody Savin make the mistake of trying to be too clever and not realizing this is a genre where less is always better than more.

Featuring three of Miller's "Bottle Shock" performers, the film works better than it really should thanks in large part to top-shelf performances by most of the relatively high-profile cast. The only real unknown is leading man Bryan Greenberg as Barkley Michaelson, a fledgling grad student living in the shadow of his dirt-bag professor father Eli (Alan Rickman).

The already full-of-himself Eli becomes a total blowhard after winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry. His forensics detective wife Sarah (Mary Steenburgen) barely tolerates him, and when they receive news Barkley has been kidnapped and Eli reacts with bothered indifference, she loses it.

Kidnapper Thaddeus (Shawn Hatosy) sets the ransom at $2 million (the same amount as Eli's prize money) and even with an army of detectives swarming all over the drop-off location, Thaddeus gets away and Barkley is released, albeit a bit bloodied and bruised. With the caper apparently over and only half the movie in the can, it's pretty clear the remainder will be chock full of twists, and while some of them make sense and cut the mustard, most don't.

Told mostly with a traditional linear narrative, Miller occasionally tosses in a few flashback (and forward) scenes that give away far too much of the plot. If he had instead gone full-boar with his Tarantino rip-off and presented everything out of sequence, the end product would have had a much livelier punch and kept our attention for the duration.

In addition to pinching Tarantino's quirky storytelling method, Miller's visuals and frantic editing are straight out of the early Guy Ritchie playbook. Along with some well-chosen ambient background music and high-contrasting set designs, the movie moves at a quick clip and looks great even when it's essentially saying or doing nothing.

Fans of this genre will appreciate the gallows humor, the slight gore and brief female nudity (courtesy of Eliza Dushku as the weak-performing femme fatale) but for anyone on the fringe, you can most certainly wait for the DVD, which should arrive long before the 2009 spring thaw. (Freestyle Releasing)