Griffin Dunne's Fierce People belongs to a strange burgeoning subgenre of period comedy-dramas like The Squid And The Whale and Running With Scissors about sensitive young men coming of age against a colorful backdrop filled with wealthy eccentrics skilled at making each other miserable. It chronicles an exotic milieu where the pampered rich spend aimless lives lazily pursuing pleasure with money they didn't earn. A regal Donald Sutherland lords over this world of money, secrets, and lies as a billionaire whose attraction to single mother Diane Lane at first appears to be nothing more than the lust of a dirty old man, but develops into something much more complicated and moving.
Set in 1980, the film stars Anton Yelchin as a glib teenager eager to spend the summer in South America with a famous anthropologist father he's never met, but ends up whiling the time away with his mom (Lane) at Sutherland's sprawling estate. Instead of observing the rituals of the tribe whose nickname gives the film its title, Yelchin ends up observing an equally bizarre tribe in New Jersey's moneyed elite, from a dashing playboy whose effervescent exterior hides a tormented soul (Chris Evans) to a gorgeous rich girl (Kristen Stewart) who takes an immediate liking to Yelchin.
Dunne and screenwriter Dirk Wittenborn take a detached sociological/anthropological approach to their material that often reeks of condescending disdain. Sutherland emerges as a figure of Shakespearean richness and Evans has his moments as a libertine whose wholesale rejection of conventional morality takes an ominous turn, but otherwise, the film depicts high society as a gallery of cartoon grotesques. Fierce People's first hour is dominated by brittle social satire, but in its third act, the film takes a jarring turn toward tremblingly sincere melodrama it can't pull off. Yelchin initially comes off like a jaded sitcom smartass, a little smirky and a little jerky, so his transition from jaded observer to wounded victim comes out of nowhere. Dunne's messy, unpredictable, yet weirdly vital movie veers from one extreme to another without finding a consistent tone, but Sutherland never strikes a wrong note. Few other acting giants can convey great dignity even while discussing their baseball-sized prostates.