One could easily say that Griffin Dunne
’s new film Fierce People represents a great leap forward from such lamentable projects as Practical Magic and Addicted to Love, but then that’s hardly setting the bar high at all. A bundle of good raw material and confused objectives, the film starts out as a skewed fable but ends up in grimmer territory, with no good reason for having traveled there, and begging to be taken more seriously.
Early scenes give every indication that what Dunne and screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn (who adapted his own novel) have in mind is yet another in the grand and hallowed tradition of “nothing was ever the same after that summer” stories, which it must be said, can often be a nice way to spend a couple hours on a dreary day. The narrator whose life is about to be changed is Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin
), a 15-year-old fixated on his absentee dad, a famous anthropologist who wants Finn to come to South America and do field work with him for the summer. The stone around Finn’s neck is his mother Liz (Diane Lane
, nothing about whom will ever say “mother”), a masseuse with serious cocaine and drinking addictions. Picking the absolute worst time (in Finn’s mind, given that he finally has a chance to reconnect with his dad) to get her life together, Liz packs the two of them up to go live with a former client of hers who Finn is convinced she’s sleeping with. Article continues below
Even with the coke addiction and obsessive viewing of anthropological films, it’s a bubbly start to a film that only gets more unreal once the Earls get to their destination. They’re set up for the summer on the massive estate of the aged Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland
), who’s richer than Croesus, has apparently an entire New Jersey town at his beck and call – the police chief is his former chauffeur, and still runs errands like picking up the Earls from their Manhattan loft – and is strangely enamored with Liz’s professional-seeming massages. Finn is set loose among the rich folks, whom he studies much as his father would a South American tribe.
There’s initially some effort made to document the different socioeconomic strata in the rarified country club society that the Earls have been dumped into, but that pretense is soon dropped in favor of putting Finn through the appropriate adolescent rituals – love, drugs, standing up to mom – all the while, it’s able to coast along on the strength of a powerful cast. Sutherland plays the wily old geezer with the seductively rakish charm that can get him through even the worst role, while Lane proves again that she is a powerfully versatile performer; the look on her face in scene where she’s at a party and her head turns hungrily to follow a waiter’s tray full of drinks, says more about the difficulties of sobriety than some entire films. Yelchin, too, gets his character just right, putting just enough teenage vinegar into it, and not too much precociousness.
A good section of the film passes enjoyably but idly, flitting through the routines of life in Osborne’s glittering domain, but eventually something has to come to a head, and when it does in a stingingly violent episode, the whole thing falls apart catastrophically. The film’s barely-there structure is scarcely enough to hold it together before this happens, and to make it carry the burden of some truly disturbing scenes is quite too much. And it’s a pity, too, because prior to that moment, Dunne has a good thing going here. Not to say that he’s not a filmmaker capable of handling darker subject matter, but throwing it heedlessly into what was essentially a light social satire seems to border on the irresponsible.