Fierce People

2007, Movie, R, 107 mins

Review

FIERCE PEOPLE
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Griffin Dunne adapts Dirk Wittenborn's guiltily pleasurable but not very good "emotional autobiography" about his youth spent among America's ultrarich and WASPy into an even worse film that was shelved for three years before release. Not even the always reliable Diane Lane can save this one.

New York City's Lower East Side, 1980: Fifteen-year-old Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin) is leading a wayward, barely supervised adolescence in a grungy loft apartment with his drug-addicted mother, professional masseuse Liz (Lane). Liz became pregnant with Finn after a fling with famous anthropologist Fox Blanchard (Wittenborn), and this summer she's finally relented and is allowing Finn to spend the summer with the father he's never met, who's in South America living and working among the Ishkanani — the so-called "fierce people" of the Amazon basin. The Ishkanani live by a simple, brutal code: If you like something, you screw it. If you don't, you kill it. Finn's summer plans are abruptly canceled when he's busted by an undercover cop while trying to buy cocaine for his drug-sick mother. Finn is released into her care, and Liz immediately calls in a favor from one of her clients: fabulously wealthy mogul Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland), whom Finn assumes has been getting more than just a foot rub from Liz. So instead of the Amazon, Finn spends the summer in a very different kind of jungle — Vlyvalle, New Jersey, the kind of place where seersucker pockets run deep, "cottages" come with stables and the indigenous people refer to Jews as "Hawaiians" so they can insult them to their faces without being branded anti-Semites. Finn and Liz are offered the guest "cottage" on Osborne's 10-square-mile farm, and while the now-sober Liz attends to Osborne's needs between AA meetings, Finn spends his days and nights getting drunk and high with Osborne's grandchildren, 15-year-old Maya (Kristen Stewart), and her charming Harvard-aged brother, Bryce (Chris Evans). Despite the obvious disapproval of their mother, Pilar Langley (Elizabeth Perkins), who's never seen without a vodka-spiked Tab in hand, Finn forms his closest connection with the elder Osborne, who hires him to sort and catalog his vast collection of personal photographs. But a newcomer can't help but step on a few toes, and Finn soon learns that the moneyed residents of Vlyvalle also live by a primal code that can be just as inscrutable — and brutal — as that of the Ishkanani.

Wittenborn, an early writer for Saturday Night Live and flamboyant man-about-Manhattan in the late, coke-dusted 1970s, knows whereof he speaks: As a teenager, his middle-class, academic parents relocated to New Jersey, where Wittenborn grew up rubbing elbows with the Osbornes' real-life counterparts like a young Nick Carraway. (His sister eventually married into the Johnson & Johnson family; Jamie Johnson, who exposed the lives of his billionaire friends in the documentary BORN RICH, is Wittenborn's nephew.) Wittenborn knows exactly what can make such awful people so alluring, but that seductive quality doesn't come through in Griffin's film; they're simply awful. None of this is helped by casting the wan and enervated Stewart and the awkward Evans as Maya and Bryce, Finn's entree into this rarefied world. Only Perkins and Lane are worth watching, but even their characters have been defanged past the point of interest. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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