Fierce People

Reviewed By brianorndorf
Posted 02/01/08 18:33:17

"Get this: rich people are miserable. Gasp!"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

There are many motion pictures I view that I have little to no interest in learning anything more about them; however, there’s something about “Fierce People” that made me wonder out loud how anyone in their right mind would take interest in a trite screenplay weathered with such deadly dramatic components. Obviously, something clicked to get notable and respected actors involved, but there’s an underlying tide of “why” associated with this dreadful picture that is hard to grasp.

With his chemically dependent mother (Diane Lane) trying to find her soul again, young Finn (Anton Yelchin) is taken away from an ideal summer in the African wilds with his anthropologist father and is forced to travel to the vast estate of billionaire Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland) to help his mom sort herself out. At first reluctant to participate in his palatial surroundings, Finn is quick to fall under the spell of the Osborne family (Chris Evans, Elizabeth Perkins, and Kristen Stewart). Learning the ropes of aristocracy, it’s only matter of time before Finn comprehends that money and power are only masking the bottomless pain of this seemingly perfect family.

Written by Dirk Wittenborn (adapted from his own novel), “Fierce People” has nothing new to say about human behavior. It’s not even a comfortable, entertaining odyssey of convention. Instead, “People” is a drag of intolerable actors without any leadership from director Griffin Dunne, stomping around an antiquated coming-of-age story pockmarked with cancerous upper-crust stabs at irony (guess what: rich people are miserable). Again I ask: what is the artistic appeal here?

The story is told through an imagined anthropological study, where our hero Finn spends his days scrutinizing the Osbornes and their abnormal social interaction. Dunne utilizes the 8mm intercut exploits of the Iskanani tribe as the backbone of the film, drawing parallels between Finn’s experiences in the wilds of privilege and the actual order of the native people. It’s an interesting thematic reach that Dunne doesn’t take anywhere beyond the obvious, even dressing up Finn in tribal wear later in the film to crudely define the character’s fractured headspace. “People” has the air of a true psychological discussion of broken people managing their messy lives, but the script routinely punts away deep mental probing for pedestrian displays of unbearable melodrama.

It’s always fantastic to have Diane Lane and Donald Sutherland around, and they class up the screenplay with off-kilter performances nimble enough to prevent Dunne from squashing them. These two are not the problem; which leads us toward the younger actors, especially Yelchin, who is an eccentric screen presence utterly incapable of reigning in his own instincts. With a screechingly affected voice (think Nicholson mixed with a sick Chihuahua), Yelchin is all tiring, syllable-pulling raw nerve here; a blinding pitch that holds the film back from needed dramatic expression. He’s awful, only to be backed up by a slew of uninspired work from Stewart (playing her umpteenth tomboy catnip role), Evans (bungling privileged mischievousness), and Perkins (trying to survive the eye-rolling part of a sloppy drunk heiress).

Midway through the picture, an act of sexual violation occurs that turns the tables for the characters and flips “People” into a clutter of passionate dead-ends. Perhaps in Wittenborn’s book this event was needed to bring Finn and the Osbornes full-circle. In the picture, it invites a series of ridiculous, overwrought sequences dependent on Yelchin’s non-existent ability to convey dark matters of the heart. It also leads to a bizarre ending involving guns, murder, and self-mutilation; three violent events this muddled film would’ve been better off without.

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