The Reeler


September 6, 2007

Fierce People

The rich are different in Dunne's class-conscious melodrama -- and not in a good way

"Who are your people and where do they summer?” is a joke of a conversation-opener turned punchline among certain friends of mine; at one point I believe it was even immortalized on a T-shirt. Of course the joke of the matter is lodged in its creation, that at the source of this chuckling chain of friends was someone in the position of actually having to answer that question, having been asked by a blue-blooded elder at a high-society party he had stumbled into. Apparently there still exists a corner of the world where such questions are posed with not just a straight face but a rather grave one.

Fierce People, Griffin Dunne’s third film as a director and an adaptation of Dirk Wittenborn’s 2002 novel (adapted by Wittenborn for the screen), is an exploration of this world, its excesses and attitudes. And though it offers a couple of credible looks into how the other half (or top 2 percent) think, if not live, rather than achieve proto-Gatsby levels of rich, rippling insight, Fierce People reduces its wealthy subjects, and then itself, to a hollow punchline of the above-mentioned variety.

It’s New York City in 1980, and teenage Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin) is busted trying to score some coke for his burnout mom Liz (Diane Lane). Through some sweet-voiced, Yelchin narration, we learn that Finn has never met his father, a famous anthropologist who spent his career studying obscure tribal factions, and is going to miss his chance to finally summer with him (in some tony corner of the jungle) due to the bust. For Liz, rock bottom means leaving New York, kicking the bam-bam and dragging her son to the New Jersey enclave of some rich oldie she used to rub down as a candy striper.

That oldie is Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland), and he has amassed fortune enough to run his own fiefdom, a hamlet he has named Vlyville. Ogden is the dotty patriarch of not just of his smallish clan (two adult grandchildren and a daughter played by Elizabeth Perkins) but hackneyed collection of quirky locals. Think Gilmore Girls with less subtlety (yeah, exactly) and more retarded, portent-wielding street artists. Liz taps Ogden’s soft spot for a summer job and some nice digs for her son, who mixes tentatively with the rich kids while fending off the ugly rumors about his mom.

Yelchin, looking much younger than he did in the recent Alpha Dog (Fierce People has been on the shelf for several years) and bearing a question mark-ish bulb of curls atop his long, lanky body, is one of the most empathetic presences on the screen today. Though he seems perfectly cast as Finn, and I shudder to think what a lesser actor would have done with some of the film’s outrageously disconcerting material, Dunne wastes Yelchin’s wonderful timing and loopy but never cute delivery on an overbaked, tonally schizophrenic narrative.

Lane and Sutherland are also in nuanced form (their interactions in particular are infused with a wistful, ruefully complicated bond, and Lane’s scene with an injured and ashamed Yelchin is almost unwatchably painful) but the film goes off the rails early (I would say in the “fuck and kill” scene of the rich kids watching footage of a tribal ceremony and then ranting about their own baser instincts with embarrassing inauthenticity) and heads ever deeper into the melodramatic mire. By the time Finn is being mysteriously and horrifically punished for his budding romance (and cringey body-painting exploits) with the young Vlyville heiress, there’s not enough momentum to sustain the drama behind who stole his clothes, or attacked and violated him, or whether the dingo ate his baby.

There are a couple of interesting ideas at work here (although The Nanny Diaries also features one of Fierce People’s more unfortunate tropes: that of envisioning The Haves as anthropological specimens). The kids Finn meets behave like teen savages, dabbling in debauchery from the safety of privilege, mocking Liz for getting straight when they can’t stop coking; Ogden teaches Finn that all money is bad money, his own fortune being ultimately derived by the most lurid and lowly means. Well-trod terrain, perhaps, but it could certainly use intelligent revisitation in the age of The Paris Hilton Experience and society-page smut shows like The Hills.

But Dunne is intent on high-kicking emotional show-off-ery, and the characters you have been tricked into caring about largely by virtue of some improbably natural, inflected performances (and his initially gentle and restrained direction), are put into situations you can help but resent the director for conceiving. There are countless botched sequences and crude intercuts of anthropological footage, as well as characters in loincloth and war stripes themselves. It’s painful to watch Dunne (war) paint all of his fierce people into the tiniest, least forgiving of narrative corners: the kind where you feel like you’re right there with them.

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