Since Cain and Abel, brothers have been letting things get out of hand. The conflict is biblical and filmmakers just can’t stay away from the chance to tie bad brothers and greed into a messy bow for us. There’s always room for the new. After all, it’s been three decades since Michael and Fredo Corleone put the same issues out there in a pair of “Godfather” films three decades ago. Now, writer/director Randall Miller makes his own run in “Nobel Son” with plenty of greed and sibling fireworks. Just last year writer Kelly Masterson reworked those ideas in the highly regarded but under appreciated “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” from director Sidney Lumet. That’s our holiday Smackdown!: Deciding which movie tells the better story of battling brothers, and which deserves a lump of coal.
Few people are less deserving of the acclaim just bestowed upon Eli Michaelson. His unbelievable good fortune propels “Nobel Son.” Michaelson (Alan Rickman) receives word he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and it turns a simple misanthrope into a monster. Eli’s colleagues disliked his aloof, condescending manner; now he’s insufferable and they hate him. That pretty much sums up the feelings of Michaelson’s forensic psychiatrist wife, Sarah (Mary Steenburgen) and their son, Barkley (Bryan Greenberg). To Sarah, Eli is selfish, philandering and boorish. He is dismissive toward Barkley. Eli Michaelson is irresistibly nasty. Matters might have remained at that level until Barkley misses his flight to the award ceremony in Sweden. He’s been kidnapped by Thaddeus James, whose genetic link to Eli had been undisclosed until now. James (Shawn Hatosy) wants revenge and Michaelson’s Nobel Prize money. A convoluted series of events follows, involving mayhem, the Stockholm Syndrome, double crosses, several Mini Coopers, a detective (Bill Pullman) sweet on Sarah, plus an unstable young woman named City Hall (Eliza Dushku). On the way to resolution, no plot twist is ignored and the story – cowritten by Miller and Jody Savin- even aims for laughs.
Charles and Nanette (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) own a suburban jewelry store and have the poor luck of being the parents of Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Andy embezzled money to buy drugs and an audit will soon unmask his activities. To cover his trail he decides to rob his parent’s store and enlists his brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke). He needs money for other reasons, but he’s not enthusiastic about the caper. Hank enlists a co-worker to help pull off the heist, but it goes haywire. One robber is shot dead in the store, Nanette is shot and dies in the hospital. Andy leaves a bloody mess trying to cover his tracks and is later shot. Charles is dissatisfied with the police investigation and on his own begins connecting the dots linking his family to the crime. Charles takes matters – literally – into his own hands and “Before the Devil” shows that some people will not forget and forgive.
Both movies are compelling to watch, because one features a strong story told well, and the other is something else entirely.
Both have memorable casts. Alan Rickman deserves special attention. His Eli Michaelson is the type of role actors die for, and audiences eat up. Nasty, corrupt, acid-tongued and unrelenting. Every moment on screen is an uncomfortable pleasure to witness. Mary Steenburgen is reliably expressive as the wronged wife who will have her revenge; Bill Pullman is affable, as ever. Danny DeVito and Ted Danson wander about in cameo roles.
“Before the Devil” has strength at every position: Two Academy Award winners in Hoffman and Marisa Tomei, who portrays Andy’s wife, Gina. Albert Finney and Ethan Hawke. Amy Ryan continues to build a solid reputation.
There’s more space between the two movies when it comes to the screenwriting. “Before the Devil” tells a straight ahead story with plausible complications and no unnecessary layering. The characters think and react precisely the way you would expect under desperate circumstances. You cannot expect a happy ending and don’t get one. Writer Kelly Masterson shows restraint.
You can’t say the same about the script Randall Miller cowrote with Jody Savin. “Nobel Son” does not avoid any plot twist or complication. This film combines too many closeups with unlikely double crosses, a death by falling car — there’s even a sight gag involving a cop and donuts. I could go on, but you get my drift.
Do you sense the direction I’m heading?
This one is an easy call.
“Nobel Son” is a pizza with too many toppings: The flavors are muddied, and nourishment is sacrificed for sheer bulk. Alan Rickman’s performance is dandy, but the movie should have scraped away half the plot twists. Rethink any notion of ever combining donut humor and human dismemberment in the same storyline. It’s not surprising “Nobel Son” waited a year and a half before snagging a distributor. This movie is just too much.
“Before the Devil” has much more working for it: a spare story, uniformly strong acting and Director Sidney Lumet. He tightened his disciplined approach over a strong television and film career: “The Pawnbroker,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network.”
Now you can expand that list with our winner, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”