In one of those karmic quirks of the film-release calendar, actor turned director Griffin Dunne’s Fierce People finally staggers into theaters (more than two years after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival) barely a fortnight after The Nanny Diaries, that other cautionary tale about a proletariat pea that works its way under the mattress of the sockless-loafer crowd, sparking a predictable class conflict. Adding to the déjà vu, both films liken their outsider’s view of WASPy privilege to an anthropological study and feature fleeting appearances by Chris Evans as a kind of anthropomorphic Ralph Lauren ad. But where most of the injustices suffered by Nanny’s nanny are of the skin-deep variety, Fierce People ups the ante: It says, in effect, tangle with these crazy rich white folks and they will — quite literally — fuck you up the ass.
Saddled with a role that demands more behavioral affects than even an actress of her considerable gifts can muster, Diane Lane stars as Liz, a coke-snorting, alcoholic masseuse raising her 16-year-old son, Finn (Anton Yelchin), on the lower-rent streets of Manhattan circa 1980. Meanwhile, Finn’s estranged father, the “Elvis of anthropology,” toils in some remote jungle studying a primitive tribe called the Ishkanani. When Finn gets busted scoring Mom some blow down at the corner store (ah, the glories of pre-Giuliani New York), Liz’s parental instincts kick in and, instead of shipping Finn off to spend the summer with his father, she instead accepts the invitation of a wealthy client, Mr. Osborne (Donald Sutherland), to come to his sprawling, Kennedy-like compound in suburban New Jersey, where she will be paid for her services while young Finn gets a taste of how the other half lives.
Actually, he ends up getting a lot more than that. During a late-night walk on the grounds, Finn is beaten and anally raped by an assailant whose identity goes undetected (well, save for a distinctive cigarette lighter that, wouldn’t you just know it, comes home to roost), but whose message couldn’t be clearer: Finn has gotten a little too chummy with Mr. Osborne, or perhaps Mr. O’s gregarious, power-to-the-little-people grandson (Evans) and seductive granddaughter (Kristen Stewart), for some family member’s liking. Welcome to the rape of the poor — literally.
The press notes for Fierce People devote prolonged discussion about the fact that screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn, who adapted his own novel, spent his youth as “the poor boy at the rich party.” And Dunne, son of Dominick, is certainly no stranger to old-money circles. Yet for all of the film’s attention to the finer details of summer lawn parties, illegitimate children conceived with the hired help, and the layering of one oxford shirt over another, its insight into this world of decadence and debauchery seems limited to a single reductive idea: The Osbornes are like the Ishkanani, only with bigger homes and more clothes. (And in case that’s not perfectly clear, Dunne and Wittenborn cook up a howler of a scene in which Yelchin, Evans and Stewart prance around chanting “kill, fuck, kill, fuck” while a 16 mm tribal film plays in the background and the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” blares on the soundtrack.)
The presence of Sutherland only underscores how much more sharply the film version of Six Degrees of Separation — to say nothing of F. Scott Fitzgerald — crystallized this same moneyed milieu. Not that Fierce People fares much better as a half-assed whodunit, complete with one of those central-casting man-children of unspecified mental retardation, on hand here to spend most of the movie drawing chalk petroglyphs (another anthropological reference!), until he proves integral to a dramatic third act: ta-da! It’s possible, I suppose, that Dunne and Wittenborn were so intent on excoriating the well-to-do that they conceived of this entire movie as an act of self-flagellation. In which case, they should rest assured that no one stands to make a dime from it.
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FIERCE PEOPLE | Directed by GRIFFIN DUNNE | Written by DIRK WITTENBORN, based on his book | Produced by NICK WECHSLER and DUNNE | Released by Autonomous Films | Selected theaters