The modern tendency to resort to violence in almost any situation has at least two causes. The primary one is that violence sells. A substantial portion of the audience likes to see people beating each other up. A more subtle cause is that violence is an easy plot device. If you present a problem which you can't figure any other way out of, have the characters fight their way out. It's a lazy solution to plotting difficulties, and, like most forms of laziness, it compromises the quality of the product. Of course, violence in films has been around for a very long time, but the inappropriate use of violence as a plot resolution device is much more popular today than before.
Firstborn is a particularly unfortunate example. The story deals with the difficulties children have when their divorced parents start to date again. With so many divorces, this is a topic of some interest to a lot of people. Is it fair to children to force a new replacement parent on them? Is it fair for the children to totally dictate their parents' choice of companions? How does a stranger go about fitting himself into a family, particularly when the children will almost invariably be hostile? There has to be a good, thoughtful film in this subject. Firstborn isn't it. Director Michael Apted and screenwriter Ron Koslow have compromised their story, either for commercial purposes or to avoid problems with the screenplay, the kind of problems that require hard work but whose resolution can sometimes lead to extraordinary results.
Instead, Firstborn cops out in favor of the easy solution. Rather than show a balance among the major characters, the mother is a deluded fool and her new boyfriend is a sinister heavy who is obviously up to no good. Teri Garr and Peter Weller do a good job with these parts, but the film would have been better served if the mother was a bit less blind and the boyfriend quite a bit less creepy. Christopher Collet is excellent as the eldest son, who must save himself, his brother, and his mother from Weller. Corey Haim is also fine as the younger brother. The handling of the two sons is much better than that of the adults. The relationship between the elder and younger brother is the best element of the film, and will be recognizable to anyone who has siblings. While the turns of events in the plot are improbable and melodramatic, the boys' reactions to them are very well done.
Given the script he was working from, Michael Apted has done a good, professional job. However, Apted has a fair amount of power, certainly enough to get revisions made in his scripts, so I must presume that he approved of the direction Firstborn took, and thus must shoulder some of the responsibility. Ron Koslow also deserves both praise and blame. The early part of the story is very well constructed, and the dialog is excellent throughout, but he wrote the second half of the screenplay, too, with its typical rabble-rousing vigilante resolution.
Firstborn is a typical Hollywood film in terms of all of the production values. Another reviewer has applied the adjective "slick", and it's accurate. The cinematographer and set designer employ all of their best tricks to deck the picture out, to good effect. Typical is the fact that Collet plays lacrosse at school, rather than football. This gives the Apted a chance to show us slightly different athletic sequences and gives the film a slightly ritzier tone, but ultimately is of little significance, unless one counts the opportunities it affords to show lots of shots of lacrosse players wacking each other with sticks, thus preparing the way for more pertinent violence to come. Firstborn is a handsome film, for what that's worth.
In truth, I may be too hard on this movie. For what it is, Firstborn is very well done. I just can't help seeing it as emblematic of the growing trend in American films to opt for the easy way out of hard problems, particularly if some violence can be spliced in to boost grosses. Firstborn is definitely superior to many of the major films of the year, and is quite enjoyable in some ways. Almost everything happening on the periphery of the story is excellent and worthwhile, and there is enough of this to make the film worth seeing just on that basis. Apted does get good value out of his melodrama, which should satisfy many people. My reaction is really a matter of timing. If I had seen Firstborn before having seen so many other films which needlessly resorted to violence, I probably would have been less critical of its faintheartedness.
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