“Fierce People” is based on a forced premise: the idea that a family of super-rich New Jersey eccentrics is like a tribe to be studied anthropologically.
None of the characters resembles any creature you’d discover in nature, however.
Griffin Dunne, directing from a script by Dirk Wittenborn (based on his book), wants us to gawk at aging patriarch Ogden C. Osbourne (Donald Sutherland) and his dysfunctional brood of drunks, misfits and hangers-on and, at the same time, appreciate them for the supposed humanity of their flaws.
We see them through the bemused eyes of 16-year-old Finn (Anton Yelchin), whose recovering alcoholic and coke addict mother, Liz (Diane Lane), has dragged him to the estate of Osbourne, an old friend of hers, during the summer of 1978.
Finn was supposed to have visited his estranged father, a famed anthropologist, in the Amazon to help him study the fictional Ishkanani tribe. Instead he watches his dad’s documentaries, which conveniently happen to comment on his increasingly bizarre run-ins with the Osbourne clan. Ozzy, Sharon, Jack and Kelly came off more believably as real people on MTV.
Osbourne’s brittle daughter (Elizabeth Perkins) wanders around the grounds hammered all the time, having slipped liquor into her Tab can, and accuses Liz of being some sort of paid escort for her dad. (She’s actually a masseuse but their bond, we learn later, runs deeper. The relationship between Lane and Sutherland is the film’s lone source of warmth and chemistry; they’re both too good to allow themselves to get bogged down by bad material.)
But it’s Osbourne’s grandkids who have a greater impact on shaping young Finn during this obvious coming-of-age drama. The smugly confident Bryce (Chris Evans) becomes his best friend (and eventually his worst enemy when the film takes an ill-advised violent turn). And the pretty, athletic Maya (Kristen Stewart) becomes his de facto girlfriend, teaching him the ways of the world, including one intimate scene involving body paint on a private island that’s more awkward than hot.
Finn also gets it on with the sultry Hispanic maid (Paz de la Huerta), which is as offensive a cliché as the mentally retarded member of the Osbourne family, a young man who witnesses all the dirty deeds and tries to report them using crude chalk drawings.
As if that weren’t clunkily literal enough for you, people chase one another through the sprawling jungle-like estate carrying weapons, and at one point, Bryce goes to Finn’s room and places a tribal headdress on him.
The extended and heavy-handed metaphor is never as clever as the filmmakers seem to think it is.