Fierce People (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Fierce People starts out as a satire-tinged, jocular drama that undergoes a jarring shift in tone to the dark side. While the film successfully makes light of such subjects as drug addiction and coma victims during its first half, the event that occurs around the mid-point is so grim that Dirk Wittenborn's screenplay simply closes down the humor and lets the film progress in a more sober fashion. In a way, it's a shame, because Fierce People is a lot of fun during its first hour; the final 45 minutes aren't as enjoyable. The distributor, Lionsgate, must have recognized the difficulty in getting people to watch the movie. It has taken more than two years since Fierce People's premiere at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival for it to finally see a limited theatrical distribution.

Oddly, this is the second movie in a few weeks to present modern-day life as an anthropological study. In The Nanny Diaries, a New Jersey girl goes to live in Manhattan, where she makes a study of the Upper West Side Tribe. In an odd reversal, Fierce People takes a New York boy and moves him to New Jersey, where he makes a study of a Garden State Tribe. The kid at the center of the story is Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin), whose drug-addicted mother, Liz (Diane Lane), is functioning as a single mother. Finn's anthropologist father, whom he has never met, lives in South America with the Iskanani Indians. In order to give Finn's life some structure, Liz decides to clean up and move to New Jersey. Her services as a masseuse are desired by gazillionaire Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland), who owes Liz something as a result of a past encounter. In the space of a few days, Finn is brushing shoulders with the rich and famous, including Osborne's dissolute grandchildren, Bryce (Chris Evans) and Maya (Kristen Stewart). He's also dallying with the maid, Jilly (Paz de la Huerta), although that stops once her crossbow-carrying boyfriend objects and Liz shows a willingness to kiss on the first, unconventional date.

The early parts of Fierce People contain a fair amount of understated humor. There's a scene in which Finn is busted while buying drugs for his mom. (No "good" deed goes unpunished.) His observations, provided via a voiceover, are snarky. And there's a sequence in which Jilly removes her top then watches incredulously as Finn loses interest because Osbourne has shown up nearby. One wonders about Finn's masculinity because, given an option between Paz de la Huerta's breasts and Donald Sutherland, only a eunuch would think there's a choice.

With this role, Diane Lane has graduated from love interest and leading lady to "mother." Despite having top billing, this is a supporting role and her romantic subplot is as tepid and forgettable as they come. Her character is oddly developed, going almost instantaneously from a drug abusing, neglectful mother to Florence Henderson. Anton Yelchin shows the kind of charm that would land him the lead in Charlie Bartlett (a film that would have beaten Fierce People to screens if it hadn't been put on hold). Donald Sutherland has no problem with the clichéd role of the wise old coot who has life lessons to impart to a young protégé. Chris Evans is suitably sleazy. And Kristen Stewart, who left an impression in In the Land of Women, shows why she was chosen for that part.

The story for Fierce People relies a little too much on plot contrivances, but that doesn't become apparent until after the end credits have rolled. The film is worthwhile primarily for the fun, breezy first hour. After that, it's a case of watching to find out how things turn out. Director Griffin Dunne obviously has a liking for movies that combine light and dark - his directorial debut was the sometimes uncomfortable Meg Ryan/Matthew Broderick rom-com, Addicted to Love - but his handling of the dramatic tone shifts in Fierce People is a little unsure. Overall, it's an enjoyable effort, but not a positive triumph.

Fierce People (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2007-09-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1