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•• Filmjerk, Edward Havens: Rating A-
Since the latter part of 2006, I've been thinking about writing a column called "The Best Films of 2005 You May Never See," which would have included Peter Chan's "Perhaps Love" (best described as an Asian "Moulin Rouge") and this absurdist comedy from Griffin Dunne, which no doubt would have finally earned Donald Sutherland his elusive first Academy Award nomination had it come out when it was first scheduled to.
But, alas, for some unknown reason, the decision was made to delay “Fierce People” and instead push Sutherland for his mediocre work in the lamentable Keira Knighley version of “Pride and Prejudice.” No Oscar nomination for Mr. Sutherland came, and “Fierce People” continued to sit on the proverbial shelf, and sit and sit some more. And sat there it did, for more than two years, unceremoniously dumped by its original distributor and ignobly picked up by the people who brought us such cinematic gems as “Captivity,” “Skinwalkers” and the “8 Films to Die For” Horrorfest. So now, Mr. Sutherland must do what so many other great actors have done recently, concentrate on television, and wonder if he will ever have another film role as rich and well-written as Ogden C. Osborne.
[..] A lot of this might sound like a storyline just a step up from Days of our Lives, or, with a lower budget and a few edits for content, a Lifetime Original Movie starring Gail O’Grady, Peter Bergman and Alex D. Linz, yet it is the strong cast, the refreshingly unruly direction of Dunne and the proudly melancholy screenplay by one-time “Saturday Night Live” writer Dirk Wittenborn that keeps “Fierce People” from being a humdrum affair. Lane has never been more radiant, Yelchin finally shows some of that promise merely hinted at for years, Stewart continues to show she is the most likely to become the Jodie Foster of her generation, and even Evans shows a depth of emotion unseen in his hackneyed performances in those insipid superhero movies. Combined, though, they don’t hold a match to the performance of Sutherland, who reminds us once again how great he can be when given a choice role, and how much Hollywood still doesn’t understand how to use him properly, even after forty years of service.
”Fierce People” is an excellent example of films being made for the right reasons. Not because it’s going to make everyone rich, and not because it’s going to win a plethora of awards... because, let’s face it, neither was ever likely to happen in the first place, the latter being even more true now that it’s lost the powerhouse Lionsgate awards team, who was able to bring an unlikely Best Picture win to “Crash” two years ago and established the company as a major player. “Fierce People” exists because it is an interesting story, interestingly told. No need for massive effects, massive sets, massive promotional budget or massive push of Happy Meal toys. It is what it is, a slice of someone’s life, who deserves better and learns the hard way that being allowed in to the gates of aristocracy doesn’t make one an aristocrat. Too bad this wasn’t made twenty-five years ago, when it still had a chance of being accepted by the masses because it was quirky.
•• IGN, Todd Gilchrist: This modest coming of age story explores a few too many stories to form a cohesive whole.
Someone once said that movies are a better reflection of the time in which they are made than of the time they purport to be about, and Fierce People is no different. Despite its early '80s setting, this film intensely explores the great divide between haves and have nots in A.D. 2007. Adapted by Dirk Wittenborn from his 2002 novel, the story seems to have little immediate relevance to the time period in which it is set, save for the seemingly far more relaxed attitude most of the characters have about Liz's drug addiction; there is almost no talk at all of rehab or questions about her fitness as a mother. Meanwhile, the Osbornes' overflowing affluence -- not to mention this poor kid's integration into the family's hierarchy of wealth -- speaks volumes about the way we idolize the rich and afford them rights and privileges that we don't extend to ourselves, whom we consider "normal" folks.
Unfortunately, all of this is presented so languorously that the film never gains any kind of dramatic momentum, even when events take a turn for the much, much worse. Perhaps because Wittenborn is reinterpreting his own material, he's a little too close to it to make real judgments about the flow, pacing, and building intensity of a film versus the relaxed pace and rapturous detail of a novel. But after what seems like a full movie's worth of story, Finn is mysteriously attacked by an unknown assailant, turning the final act into a whodunit; by then, I was feeling more like whydunitend?
That said, the acting is all top-notch, starting with Lane as Liz -- Finn's recovering-addict mom. Like many actresses in Hollywood, she manages to mature and improve with age, sloughing off the superficial appeal of physical attractiveness (though she is now truly beautiful) in favor of more sophisticated and compelling turns like this one. As Finn, meanwhile, Yelchin continues to establish himself as a reliable leading man in movies of a certain size, and should in coming years easily move into the roles that folks like Emile Hirsch will outgrow as they enter adulthood. And Kristen Stewart similarly expands a character who, despite the possibility for cliche, eventually becomes an appealing and equally complex partner for Finn.
Overall, however, few if any of these elements coalesce into a cohesive whole. Is the film an examination of mother-son relationships? The story of a poor kid who pays for a taste of wealth with his innocence? A treatise on the seemingly unrestrained privilege of folks with more money than common sense? Or even a lazy chronicle of one kid's summer exploits among the rich and famous? Even with so many subplots and surprise developments, Fierce People, for all its ambitions, is ultimately a little too discombobulated to be truly fierce. So unless you watch the movie while on drugs, or are perhaps actually coming of age in any way similar to that of the characters, the only thing you'll likely be studying is how you feel slightly less than privileged to have given away your wealth and time to watch a movie that doesn't know itself what it's about.
•• Reelviews, James Berardinelli: Rating 3/4
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.
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.
•• Orlando Weekly, Steve Schneider: The latest directorial outing for actor Dunne has a lot in common with 2002 Florida Film Festival highlight The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys: It's a well-observed coming-of-age story that turns on a bold, brutal plot development some viewers will accept and others will consider an insurmountable speed bump.
Heed the seriousness of the film's central metaphor, which posits a vicious South American tribe as the mirror image of a flock of rich New Jerseyans. Studying the tribe is where young Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin) would like to be, spending a summer in the longed-for company of his anthropologist dad; instead, his mother's (Diane Lane) latest drug hassle gets the two of them shunted off to the Garden State, where she's to perform masseuse duties on the estate of a protective client (Donald Sutherland). Finn is hardly a member of this eccentric patriarch's family, but he's something more than the offspring of the help, which ensures plenty of trust issues and class-conscious faux pas as he pursues the agendas paramount in every teenager's mind: fitting in and getting girls.
An almost unspeakable trauma looms, and it's up to the excellent cast to sell it. Lane is typically up for the job – few other actresses can make real-world imperfection look so glamorous. Yet the story still feels clunky, thanks in part to its origin in a different media: In adapting his own novel, screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn seems to have failed to compress events and characters in a way that would preserve their authenticity in the face of his more audacious moves. Some experiences just read better than they film; you leave Fierce People mildly entertained yet suspicious that you've just had one of them.