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Father's Day and The Dilemma of Comedy Scoring

by Jason Comerford

The American comedy score seems to be the most put-upon genre of film scoring. The term mickey-mousing almost always gets applied to a comedy score in derogatory fashions; sometimes you wish that a composer could write bouncy, beatific music for a funny movie that doesn't ape every movement on the screen. It's definitely a dangerous area for any self-respecting composer—how to write good comedy music that doesn't resort to cliché.

Take James Newton Howard's music to the newly released Father's Day. The film—and its score—are particularly difficult to pin down. First of all, the film is terrible; don't go into the theater expecting a firecracker clone of Mrs. Doubtfire and City Slickers. The dream-team pairing of Robin Williams and Billy Crystal is something I've waited some time for, but Father's Day is a shallow cop-out of a comedy. The script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel is a tired retread of the yuppie-scum-redemption theme that pops up too often in theaters. Not only that, director Ivan Reitman keeps setting up big comic setpieces that end up having absolutely no payoff. There's not one sequence in Father's Day that can match the restaurant episode in Mrs. Doubtfire or choice moments in City Slickers. Every time you feel some kind of a chance for terrific comic outbreak, Reitman wanders off into one of his ridiculous subplots. It's sloppy filmmaking at best, whose laughs are few and far between.

James Newton Howard was posed with a difficult position: how to introduce some snap into this mess. He's done some good comedy scores before (his lilting score for Reitman's 1993 Dave was quite good at times, as was Junior), but on the whole his comedy music fits nicely into his bombastic-wallpaper method of scoring, á la Space Jam. For his credit, he doesn't take the easy route in Father's Day, but he doesn't do much for the film, either. What he wrote is basically filler to tell you what you should be feeling in the Big Important Scenes: soft strings and woodwinds whenever someone rekindles love here or shows affection for a son there. It's not particularly inspired, but it seems Reitman doesn't really know how to use the score to enhance the movie. (This in particular really needs some snappy music to keep it clicking along.) Howard's score is placed between the obligatory songs on the soundtrack, with no real cohesion or theme; it's occupying space, and doesn't propel the narrative nor slow it down.

But a score depends on the tone of the film, and James Newton Howard did the best he could under the circumstances. Father's Day is far from an intriguing palette from which he could compose, and I suppose that the score fits the film well enough, in that it's ponderous and unfulfilling.

But what, indeed, makes up a good comedy score? James Newton Howard is somewhat of a paradox of a composer in that he can switch back and forth between comic and dramatic scoring, and make equal amounts of money doing both. In comparison, some composers either started out doing comic scores and rarely do them anymore. Or they started out doing non-comedy scores but now always are hired for comedies. A good example of the former is Danny Elfman, whose career started with comic films like Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. Granted, these films were filtered through the demented sensibilities of Tim Burton, but the point remains valid. Do we see Elfman scoring comedies today? No. (Mars Attacks! doesn't count, because it simply wasn't funny.) He's forever doing his Batman / Edward Scissorhands / choirboy routine. He really needs to get back to what he started out in.

A good example of the latter is Marc Shaiman. Shaiman's first score was in 1990, for Rob Reiner's Misery. But his next films were Scenes from a Mall and then City Slickers, and since then, literally every one of Shaiman's scores, save for 1993's A Few Good Men and 1996's Ghosts of Mississippi, have been comedy scores. (And those two weren't very good.) Shaiman's comic scores are the kind of bouncy concoctions that make funny films funnier; his Addams Family scores are terrific. But he doesn't vary himself much; each one of his comic scores takes the same distressing wallpaper route much too often. Should Shaiman continue scoring comedies? In my opinion, no. He needs to score a few dramas and thrillers in a row, then return to the comedy and infuse it with some levity.

Howard Shore's score to Mrs. Doubtfire is a terrific example of what good comedy scoring can do for a film. The film was already funny enough, but Chris Columbus knew back then how to use a good composer to make his film crackle; he did it with John Williams on Home Alone, and Williams contributed a typically sentimental, highly infectious score that capped him two Oscar nominations. Shore's score to Mrs. Doubtfire infused the film with gleeful zest. Take the "Tea Time with Mrs. Sellner" cue. Robin Williams is running around his apartment, alternating between Mrs. Doubtfire and Daniel Hillard, and through all this Shore's music bounces along, without mickey-mousing or telegraphing. Shore clues you into Daniel's alternating hysteria over his predicaments and deep affection for his children, and doesn't just let the music take over the scene. It becomes part of Williams's character, and when the big comical moments are unleashed, they typically occur without score, because Shore's music has built up your emotions and allows you to laugh them off at the key moments. It's fine film music that doesn't condescend to you.

Scoring a comedy is a dangerous thing for a composer; when you're up against exhausted directors and money- hungry producers who want all the bang for the buck they can get, the tendency is to resort to overkill. Comedy scoring is typically shunned, but there are gems among the fakes. The trick is finding them.

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