Sometimes a finished movie sits on the shelf for an ominous length of time -- years even -- because it is lousy. But the holdup could also just as easily be that the film is "difficult," that is, challenging to market.

"Fierce People," which had a festival premiere in April 2005 and is just now having an American theatrical release, represents the depressing confluence of these pitfalls.

It has a bafflingly ill-conceived structure, beginning as the self-indulgent tale of a precocious boy who befriends some allegedly charming eccentrics (they're actually unbearable). Then it steps into something so dark and nasty you have the urge to check the bottom of your shoes on the way out of the theater.

Finn Earl (Anton Yelchin) gets caught buying cocaine for his mother Liz (Diane Lane), a semi-professional masseuse with flexible ethics and a long-term drug addiction.

The trauma is enough to make her briskly, and unbelievably, kick the habit and lifestyle. She takes Finn, 15, to spend the summer at the 10-square-mile New Jersey country estate of one of her many male clients and admirers, Ogden C. Osborne (Donald Sutherland), who is badly in need of a comely physical therapist.

Because Finn's absent, much longed-for biological father is an anthropologist who studies the Amazonian natives, Finn decides to spend his summer conducting his own anthropological survey of America's seventh wealthiest family. This self-conscious device was last seen a mere four weeks ago in the slightly less awful "Nanny Diaries."

Ogden's offspring include a daughter (Elizabeth Perkins of "Weeds") and two grandchildren, Maya (Kristen Stewart) and Bryce (Chris Evans, who plays the jerky member of the "Fantastic Four"). They're all lazy and spoiled and prone to big, pointless gestures, like having hot air balloon races across the estate. Finn has the poor taste to fall under their spell, and they, at least seemingly, under his, because you know, being rich is sucha bore. It's like "Running With Solid Gold Scissors."

Griffin Dunne ("Practical Magic") directed the film from an adaptation by Dirk Wittenborn of his novel of the same name. Both men grew up in and around wealth (Griffin's father is writer Dominick Dunne), and it seems clear they find obscene amounts of money to be -- drum roll for the profundity -- extremely corrupting. In order to demonstrate that, the plot takes a very unsavory and unexpected turn involving an act of violence against Finn.

It's a desperate, manipulative plea for us to get involved emotionally but it's really too late for us to start caring about Finn (it doesn't help that Yelchin delivers his lines with the insistence of a dirty old man repeating bad jokes no one wants to hear). We'd focus our attentions on Lane, but she's working with such disastrously uneven material that we never get a solid grip on her Liz, either. Elizabeth Perkins looks like she'd run for the exits if she could, and even an old pro like Sutherland can't save his weirdly scripted scenes. The actors probably wish the movie had stayed on the shelf.

Reach Mary F. Pols at mpols@bayareanewsgroup.com or 925-945-4741.

"FIERCE PEOPLE"

D

Starring: Diane Lane, Anton Yelchin, Donald Sutherland, Kristen Stewart, Elizabeth Perkins, Pax de la Huerta and Chris Evans

Director: Griffin Dunne

Rated: R for language, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some violence

Opens today: Shattuck, Berkeley; UA Emery Bay; Kabuki, S.F.

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes