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Goo a Little Dance, Make a Little Flub, and Get Neuralyzed

by Jason Comerford

Danny Elfman has to be a happy person at heart, all those dark scores of his notwithstanding. There's a joyous, freeflowing energy working in his latest scores, Men in Black and Flubber, that makes his compositions some of the most infectious in years. You have to wonder if he likes to cut loose late at night on his keyboards; I must say that I'd be interested to hear the results.

I've always been a fan of Elfman's idiosyncratic comic scores, starting with Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and continuing with Back to School, Hot to Trot, and Beetlejuice. (I think I'm the only one that enjoys the downright psychotic accordions that bolster the Hot to Trot score.) What has distressed me in recent years is Elfman's lack of scoring comedies; his stylistic synthesis of Nino Rota, Bernard Herrmann, and his own rock-and-roll talents has indeed resulted in some of the finest film scores of the eighties and nineties, but one can only take so many dark, dissonant, funereal scores before running off to hide, listening to Rudy to remind oneself that the world can be a happy place too.

Therefore I was downright thrilled to see Elfman return to his comic form with Men in Black, the delightful summer sci-fi comedy about deadpan INS-for-extraterrestrials agents whose function is to monitor the activities of all domestic aliens. Real aliens, that is. Barry Sonnenfeld's broad, comic-book direction was given a boost by Elfman's self-consciously "cool" score, with a groovy bass line that hearkens to Mancini at his sharpest.

But while the broad nature of Elfman's score in the film was a perfect match for its hit-and-run pacing, its suitability was also its downfall. Men in Black is comprised mostly of comic vignettes, one after the other; the film is funny as hell, but there's not much urgency to hang on. Granted, I don't think one should ask for much dramatic gravity in a film where a giant alien bug goes about New York City wearing the skin of a shotgun-toting farmer. But it's always nice to be reminded that a film has a story. Men in Black's frothy, easy-to-take tone is sharp but cluttered, and Elfman's score unassumingly magnifies its weakness, by presenting short, choppy cues that seem to exist only to undermine a joke when it comes along.

The long-awaited release of the score on CD addresses these problems, and makes for a much more coherent listen than I thought it would. Many of the film's brief cues are edited smoothly together, and as a whole the score really benefits from its smart presentation on disc. Elfman's orchestral experimentations are as enjoyable to listen to as ever (his samples here and there are perfectly placed in the score), and his music presents itself without resorting to parody. And he still writes finales like no one else; the "Finale" track on the new Sony CD grabs all of the themes from the picture and mixes them into a tight 3:02 package that gives the film a rousing sendoff.

What I enjoyed about Men in Black most was its complete unwillingness to resort to the usual bag of tricks. The agent theme presented in "M.I.B. Main Theme" isn't really much of a theme--it's just four notes repeated in different orchestral inflections--but Elfman doesn't let it dominate the movie. He's too smart for that. What serves as a more central theme is the motif introduced in "D's Memories," a wistful guitar-based melody that's used to great effect when underscoring the yearnings of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones at his meanest and funniest). It's always refreshing to know that there are composers out there who don't take one theme and run with it for the entire score, repeating it ad nauseum along the way. Elfman is up to the challenges presented by the goo-dripping E.T.s in "Men in Black," and it's a joy to hear him work.

Goo is the problem of the "other" Elfman score that marks his return to comedy. The continued success of Flubber is distressing at best; Jeff Bond has noted that audiences may be starting to reject bad action movies, but it seems to me that the popular taste as shifted to bad comedies. It would be one thing if Flubber had something resembling a script; John Hughes' assembly-line insult to the better screenwriters of the world rehashes his Home Alone physical jokes and spends not enough time with the delightful ILM-created Flubber and far too much time with Weebo, a flying robotic assistant whose lovestruck yearnings for Robin Williams are as grating as anything else in the film, even besting Wil Wheaton's prescence in the film. (And I kept waiting for Clancy Brown to turn around and blow away a Flubber that had morphed into a tanker bug.)

I don't know if Elfman saw a different film from the version that was released to theatres. It seems that way, anyway. Flubber's music is spiced some of the most infectiously energetic music I've heard in years; it's as if Elfman strapped nitroglycerin to the orchestra. His "Mambo del Flubber" is the highlight of the film; it's a punch-drunk piece of musical insanity that stops the film dead by having the Flubber break into a dance that serves no purpose in the film, except to suck up God knows how much money and give the ILM people more time to play with their toys. Elfman's wistful main theme for Flubber is introduced in the main titles of the score, spiced with his clever bongo-drum effects and samples, with the Flubber mambo coming in to save the film from total disaster.

Elfman's music is sprighty and vigorous, invested with his trademark quirkiness but never forgetting to address the matters at hand. Flubber doesn't have the compactness of Men in Black; its cues, like MIB, serve mostly to buttress the film's "jokes," but here they don't have the thematic gravity and effectiveness that the other score has. I don't blame Elfman for this, though; how exactly does one give levity to a film where Flubber exits a man's rear at what appears to be a high rate of speed? Elfman makes the same mistake the filmmakers do, of trying to give too much emphasis to Weebo. He scores the Weebo scenes with low-key, lovely piano-based themes, but when a film is called Flubber and the plot ostensibly revolves around it, it's distracting to have so much accentuation placed on a seemingly secondary element.

But I can't really complain, when Elfman has done exactly what I have been whining about for months by returning to scoring comedies. I don't think it's a trend that will continue; after all, he's done Good Will Hunting, which I've not heard yet, for Gus Van Sant, and he's doing American Psycho after that. (All I can say about American Psycho is, he's a natural for that one.) But I hope that he remembers after doing two films about social rejects and psychopathic murderers that happy-go-lucky aliens and dancing goo need some attention too.

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