The Firm and Others — how perspective colours reviews

I’m intrigued by the mechanism of storytelling. Just as a biologist is fascinated by how and why a living organism functions, I’m intrigued by how and why a story works (or doesn’t work). That’s part of why I do my reviews. But that also leads to an interest in the process of reviewing itself — to understanding how and why you, me, or th’ ot’er fella responds the way we do. Reviewing isn’t a science — it is coloured by our personal biases. We all have different baggage we bring with us — sometimes for good, sometimes not — when watching a movie or TV show, or reading a book or comic, that influences how we respond to it…and even how we anticipate responding to it.

One thing that got me thinking about this was the Canadian-made TV series, The Firm which, at least at the time of my writing this, I haven’t yet seen (* see post-script at the end of this post). The Firm is a new crime-suspense series based on the 1993 Hollywood movie starring Tom Cruise which, in turn, was based on the best-selling novel by John Grisham. TV series based on hit movies are not uncommon (though the actual successes in that particular sub-genre are few) and Canadians have made weekly series derived from Hollywood (and elsewhere) movies before — notably StarGate, as well as the first Nikita series (though there have only been a few examples of Canadian series based on Canadian movies — Men With Brooms and the French-language Les Boys come to mind).

But how this relates to my opening comments is that, as a “franchise”…The Firm doesn’t really mean much to me. Apparently it isn’t so much a re-make of the story, as it’s a sequel, following the characters a few years later. But the thing is, though I read the novel, years ago, and saw the movie, years ago, I have no especial attachment to it. Indeed, I can barely remember what it was about! The novel struck me as a bit of what I call an “airport read”…a breezy enough page turner that you might pick up when heading out on a long flight, to hold your interest while bumping through turbulence, but doesn’t really require any deep thought or emotional involvement. The prose style simple and matter-of-fact, rather than something where you savour the descriptions and the metaphors. Indeed, I was kind of surprised when, as years went by, author John Grisham seemed to be acquiring a reputation as a “literary” novelist…’cause that’s certainly not how I perceived The Firm.

And the movie — the movie was pretty much the same. An okay time-killer, something I might even watch again some day if I’m bored and channel-surfing, but not something I’m liable to seek out deliberately.

All this, I repeat, is based on my feelings close to two decades ago — I may well react differently today were I to read/watch the story. But that’s how it is.

Actually, one thing I do remember is noting how the movie makers tried desperately, valiantly, to add an element of morality into — what I recall as being — a kind of amoral novel. As an example, the story required the hero to be blackmailed for an extra-marital affair so, if memory serves, in the novel…he just blithely cheats on his wife. Not exactly an admirable thing to do, eh? So in the movie version, though the story still required him to cheat on his wife, the film crafted a rather more elaborate scene, giving the would be mistress some weirdly pretentious dialogue, trying to suggest a certain momentary kinship between the two, so that he’s not simply two-timing his wife, but the affair stems out of some deep seated sense of disconnectedness and dissatisfaction with his life, and the meaning of existence…or, y’know, something. They were basically struggling to slam a round peg into a square hole, but I admired the effort. Likewise, a scene in the novel where the hero murders someone in cold blood is re-written in the movie, as I recall, to make it unarguably self-defense. (I keep reiterating that “I recall” because I am dredging up imperfect decades old memories here).

I know there are a lot of people who scoff at Hollywood for such things — for this desire to create “moral” heroes. But, personally, I kind of admired them for it, for reading the novel and clearly having the same WTF? reaction I did (particular as it’s not like the novel otherwise was supposed to be some grey-shade noir-ish drama about anti-heroes).

ANYWAY…the point is, The Firm, as a novel or a movie, doesn’t hold any particular place in my mental library of beloved movies or novels, so that when I first heard about the TV series, my reaction was kind of: “huh…that old thing?” I mean, given how fickle and transient is pop culture, I wondered how many people would even remember the movie.

Yet reading some of the accompanying articles, and some internet message boards, clearly there is a fan-base — clearly people are hyped about the idea of a return of Mitch McDeere and his family. Indeed, some of the negative comments seem to be from people worried it won’t live up to their expectations, that it will betray the legacy of the classic movie and the original novel. Clearly, almost twenty years on…there are people who have placed The Firm in a special place in their personal mental library.

Now whether it’s a big fan-base…well, we’ll see once the ratings are in. Just because you can read a few comments on a message board doesn’t mean it’s a wide-spread, grass roots phenomenon. Movies based on video games will often get message boards ignited by eager gamer fans convinced the movie will break box office records…only to have it bomb because, well, outside of game fans, no one cared. That’s the funny thing about fandom — fans often unable to realize (or unwilling to acknowledge even to themselves) how much of a minority they are. Fans of an actor who will trumpet their idol as a world famous movie star…when the actor generally just gets supporting parts in B-movies…that bomb. But, as I say, maybe I’m doing the same. Because The Firm meant little to me, maybe that blinded me to realizing just how well-regarded it is in other circles.

This perspective even applies to the casting. I came upon some references suggesting it was a coup to land American actor Josh Lucas as the star…when, frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him in anything, or had even much heard of him! So am I out-of-touch for not recognizing his prestige…or are others a little wrapped up in their fan-boy (or girl) idolatry? (And I should point out, whether Lucas is a “star” or not is in no way a reflection on his talent…he could be a complete unknown and still be a perfect casting choice).

Again, that all relates to perception, to personal baggage — but it can influence how people react to things, sometimes unconsciously. I came upon a comment about the TV series Combat Hospital where the commentator dismissed it out of hand for its “unknown” cast, to him/her a sure sign of it being a bad series. Now, personally, I wouldn’t really see that as proof of anything — I see good movies and TV shows all the time with largely unfamiliar faces, or programs where the unfamiliar faces quickly steal scenes from the established pros. Yet putting that aside, it seemed an odd comments to make, given that even though I had never before seen Combat Hospital’s lead actress, Michelle Borth, she apparently has assembled a pretty hefty resume of roles in the last few years. And far from “unknown”, the casting of film actors like Elias Koteas and Deborah Kara Unger, actors not usually given to TV roles, could be perceived as a bit of a coup.

So to one commentator, from his/her perspective of not recognizing the actors, the cast was “unknown”…while from another perspective, it boasted some impressive talents.

Having devoted so many years to watching Canadian movies and TV shows, I’ve probably developed a rather different perspective on things than a lot of other people. For one, I’ve developed a familiarity with Canadian actors. Whereas years ago, I could watch a Canadian movie and recognize its imported Hollywood star surrounded by a supporting cast of largely unknown Canadian actors, these days I’m only likely to recognize the American “stars”…simply because I don’t recognize them. The supporting Canadian cast are the welcome, familiar faces, the A-list talent, but to me, the unknown face in the lead role is some American actor just recently off some briefly trendy night time soap or sitcom that I’ve never even heard of. And this familiarity or lack of familiarity can influence your reaction. I’ve seen some movies where I’ve liked the Canadian cast, but was less impressed with the American “star”…yet then will read another review which shrugs off the acting, save for special praise for the American actor…whom the reviewer clearly has seen in other productions. So do I have undue appreciation for the Canadian cast simply because I recognize them…or is the person who singles out the American actor’s “stellar” performance doing so simply because they recognize them as an American star?

Obviously — there’s no right or wrong. Probably, it’s a little of both.

Sometimes, knowing a movie is Canadian will lead to a reviewer automatically using that fact as a negative — dismissing the acting in a low-budget Canadian B-movie as being, well, “what can you expect…it’s Canadian!” when I’m doubtful they would find the acting any better in a comparable low-budget American B-movie.

A few years ago there was a Canadian-made series called Peter Benchley’s Amazon which I kind of liked, and featured an ensemble cast of Canadian and some American actors. Going into it, the actor I was most familiar with was Canadian Rob Stewart, from an earlier series called Sweating Bullets — I wasn’t a big fan of Sweating Bullets, but I had liked Stewart in it. So he was the “name” in the cast to me and initially I liked his performance the most (until I got used to the other actors, and began to appreciate their work as well). Yet then I was talking to someone else who had seen a few episodes…and who had never seen Stewart before. They were, however, well familiar with his American co-star C. Thomas Howell and, significantly, it was Howell they singled out as delivering the noteworthy performance. So, two people, watching the same ensemble cast, and in both cases, it’s the actors we were already familiar with that we felt gave the notable performance. Coincidence?

I came to like most of the actors in Amazon — including Howell. Yet, funnily enough, years later, I continue to like Rob Stewart when I see him in things…yet can pretty much take or leave Howell (not that I dislike him, or dismiss his talent).

Perception is everything.

A while back I came upon a review of the Canadian TV series Being Erica — an American review that actually was complimentary. But in the course of the review, the reviewer made the comment that you can recognize a Canadian series because the actors aren’t as “attractive” as they are in American series. And you wonder…was this really how the reviewer perceived things, or was it simply how they had convinced themselves to perceive things based on pre-conceived stereotypes? I mean, sure — American TV is populated by a lot of ex-models turned actresses, but I wouldn’t really say that’s the be-all-and-end-all of the casting pool. Is Being Erica’s Erin Karpluk any less pretty — cheekbone to cheekbone — than a lot of the actresses headlining U.S. series?

Now the reviewer was, ironically, being complimentary to the series — they liked it. But they still felt a need to get in that little dig that, one could argue, has very little basis in reality.

And of course beauty — let alone “attractiveness” — is even more subjective than talent. The fact of the matter is, I’ve seen more than a few Canadian movies where the producers have brought up their “beautiful” American actors to star…and frankly, I think some of the Canadian actors in supporting roles are better looking!

Anyway, what this all relates to is just realizing how subjective these things can be. Not simply subjective in that I might like something you don’t, or vice versa, and both of us are equally right. No, I mean even what influences that opinion can be affected by subconscious factors. A mediocre performance might seem better than it is simply because you recognize the actor, and are pre-disposed to like them (or assume that, since they get a lot of work, then, gosh, they must be good) and a perfectly solid, perfectly good performance you might dismiss simply because you don’t recognize the actor and so overlook the genuine care and nuance they are bringing to their part.

*Okay — so I did catch the two-hour premier of The Firm. One episode isn’t enough for me to commit to an official review, so I’ll have to see a couple more episodes. And pilot episodes are a bit like a shakedown cruise, working out the kinks and bumps before the series hits open water. But with that one two-hour episode The Firm basically seemed…well, okay. It seems as though it’s basically just going to be a pretty conventional lawyer series, with a case-of-the-week plots, but strung together with a sub-plot involving an on going conspiracy. There was, to my mind, some clunky dialogue, some clumsy scenes…but also some decent scenes so, as I say, it could go either way once it has a few more episodes under its belt. My problem, I suppose, is that it is just another lawyer series…and there are a bunch of them on the schedule as it is. Right now my favourites in that genre are The Good Wife (though its third season doesn’t seem quite as sure footed as previously) and newcomer, Suits. And I’m not sure the actors, and their characters, are doing enough to distinguish The Firm, to get it a place at the table, as it were — the actors (Josh Lucas, Callum Keith Rennie, Molly Parker, Juliette Lewis) were fine, without anyone really delivering a stand-out, scene stealing performance, and the characters are kind of, well, serviceable — which may be its biggest Achilles heel. In a weekly series, how much you care about and are interested in the characters can be as important as any plotting. Still, as I say, more than a few series have won me over after a few episodes…so, we’ll see…

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