Griffin Dunne has got to be one of the least recognizable “that guys” around, having appeared in a ton of TV shows and even directed a few movies (Addicted to Love, Practical Magic) with decent-sized stars (Mathew Broderick, Nicole Kidman, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock) that most people only vaguely remember being released at all. He may have had substantial roles in American Werewolf in London and even Scorcese’s After Hours, but hell if I could pick the guy out of a lineup of Michael Douglas lookalikes (and, after a Golden Globe nomination, you’d think, subsequently, he could get better acting work than a TV movie about Toonces the Driving Cat.) But, the man does have a helluva fascinating family history — he’s the son of Dominick Dunne, whose actress daughter was murdered in 1982, a tragedy that actually led to meteoric rise in Domanick’s career as a journalist and crime-fiction writer. In response to the murder, Dominick’s wife, Ellen Beatriz, began the organization Justice for Homicide Victims. In addition, Griffin’s uncle (Dominick’s brother) is the novelist and screenwriter (Up Close and Personal) of whom the beautiful and heart-wrenching Joan Didion novel, The Year of Magical Thinking was about.
Unfortunately, Griffin Dunne’s remarkable family only makes a discussion of Fierce People anticlimactic by comparison. The film has rightly been on the shelf for a couple of years, which is why Anton Yelchin (“Huff” and the upcoming Charlie Bartlett) still looks slightly prepubescent, though in reality, he’s already well on his way to post-adolescent Fred Savagery. Here, he’s Finn, the illegitimate son of Liz (Diane Lane), a massage therapist who spends most of her time pissed to the gills on booger sugar. Finn is meant to travel to South America for the summer to hang with the father he’s never met, an anthropologist who studies the Iskanani Indians, or “Fierce People.” However, very early on, he’s caught in a drug-bust trying to buy his mom some cocaine, and the two, in an effort to straighten out their lives, end up at the guesthouse of a bazillionare ex-client of Liz’s, Ogden C. Osbourne (Donald Sutherland). As Finn suggests via his nasally voice-overs, the movie is about “my time among the Fierce People, in the summer of 1980, in the deepest, darkest part of New Jersey.”
Having failed to make it to South America, Finn instead does an anthropological study of his own, observing the residents of Ogden’s 10-mile estate and drawing a weak, very tenuous analogy between them and the tribes his father studies. Finn, initially, is suspicious of how they wound up on the estate; he thinks it’s because his mother is sleeping with Ogden, a suspicion that we later learn was unfounded because Ogden is a eunuch (I’m not making this up), which turns out to be a useless plot details, except to inject some unneeded pathos into the nostalgic anecdote that Ogden shares about his love for a stripper named Creamsicle (sigh). Elizabeth Perkins, as Ogden’s daughter, is more or less the boozy bitch she plays on “Weeds,” though she sort of disappears halfway through the film, which might have been explained while I was sleeping. Elsewhere, Finn falls for Ogden’s granddaughter, Maya (Kristen Stewart), who performs some erotic fingerpainting feat upon Finn, which is mostly just kind of creepy given their ages.
So, having laid out the premise, things move along at a blandly glacial pace — Dirk Winterbottom’s script begins as a light-hearted, if not needlessly tedious social satire, using that hideously opaque metaphor — comparing the rich eccentric folks on the estate to the Iskanani Indians — as the fulcrum for which Fierce People dangles precipitously between obnoxiously cute coming-of-age tale and cinematic Ambien (without the benefits of sleep walking or an overcharged sex drive that allows one to fuck strangers prosecution free).
Not content, however, to simply run the analogy into the ground and leave dull enough alone, at around the one-hour mark, Fierce People suddenly transforms into a very stupid movie when “a retard” (I’m quoting from the film — back off) stands in as a metaphor for Griffin Dunne’s efforts. The overall tribal metaphor takes a dark and unpleasant turn after Finn is anally raped by an unknown assailant (“Throughout history, rape has been used as a weapon in tribal warfare”) and, subsequently, the slow kid leaves clues to the assailant’s identity.
Apparently, after a rape, the only way to get your soul back is to “find the guy who did it, cut his heart out, and show it to the village.” Metaphorically, of course. But first, Finn has to sleep with the maid. And so, motivated by Speed Racer (seriously, not kidding) Finn decides to track down his attacker (because, after he “got it in the ass, he really got his shit together.”) Yay! A mystery? A dark revenge tale? Huh? How the hell did we end up here, when Fierce People started out so innocently as a bad rip-off of Igby Goes Down?
The tonal shift is so dramatic and the plot developments are so different from the first and second half that Fierce People is basically two movies starring the same characters. But, bully for Dunne — he’s managed to royally fuck them both up; it’s not too often when a film that involves male rape, a eunuch, drug and alcohol abuse, and class struggles can fail so miserably.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Fierce People / Dustin Rowles
Film | September 6, 2007 | Comments ()