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Sharps and flats

The Score

Richard Wintle 8 January 2012

Playing along: the mysterious neighbor

Hardcore scientists will find a few details to annoy

"The minute details of genetic code are the notes that piece together the composition of a life."

Dr. Lynne Magnusson is a fictional genetics researcher embroiled in a competition to be the first to identify a cancer gene. Her story is explored in The Score (2005), a musical movie based on the original stage production by the Electric Company Theatre. Set largely in her laboratory, the film features a cast of characters familiar to scientists: technicians, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and largely-unseen foreign competitors.

The race to identify the gene forms the main plot, with secondary issues (a laboratory romance, tension between lab personnel and supervisor over ownership of the project) providing flavour. Set against this are Dr. Magnusson’s own concerns over her family history of genetic disease and her future health risks. Central to the plot is a race against the well-funded French competitors, touching lightly on the potentially tricky moral issue of whether to accept corporate funding from a pharmaceutical company to drive the research forward. Ultimately, the film asks the question – how do we make prenatal decisions based on our genetics? A heavy message, but The Score does eventually reach it, albeit by a rather convoluted path.

Jane Perry (The Three Musketeers, Spooks) does the heavy lifting here as Dr. Magnusson, with Jonathon Young (Sanctuary), a dead ringer for a young Greg Germann (Ally McBeal), serving up a strong supporting performance as her postdoctoral fellow Benny. The rest of the cast is solid, but unspectacular. A temp, Tyler (Alessandro Juliani; Battlestar Galactica, Smallville) provides a useful foil, asking basic questions about the science that help the viewer understand what’s going on in the lab. The French adversary is played by journeyman TV character actor Tom Butler.

Overall, this production has more the look and feel of an art film than a full-blown musical. Some of the parallels are heavy-handed – Dr. Magnusson’s neighbour, a pianist, represents creation and discovery through music, contrasting her life based in scientific discovery. The musical motif echoes throughout, most notably through the use of a ticking metronome to indicate time passing, an interesting but obvious device. Parallel cutting from scene to scene, narration from the upstairs neighbour, and unsubtle foreshadowings of Dr. Magnusson’s future health all serve to push The Score more towards “serious” film than would be suggested by the rollicking musical numbers that appear throughout. This split never really sits comfortably, but it is interesting to watch. The look is also a bit dated, even for 2005, with reliance on fax machines and brick-sized mobile phones. Were things really so backward those few years ago?

Hardcore scientists will find a few details to annoy. A sample is handed over in what is clearly a scintillation vial, completely the wrong container. And at one point, a blood sample is put into a SpeedVac for processing, a piece of equipment more useful for drying DNA for long-term storage than for extracting it from blood. But these digressions of style over substance are minor. More irritating is the portrayal of the French competitors, who are overly theatrical, and fashionably attired in stylish, peach-coloured lab coats.

The musical numbers are generally good fun and well-executed. Rhyming “jubilation” with “genetic mutation”, while not far from doggerel, is good for a laugh and makes the appropriate point. Less successful is a love tune that features the awful line, “like a gene in a mouse, you knock me out”. And cringeworthily awful is the refrain “CAG CAG CAG CAG” – DNA sequence set to music. Nevertheless, the show tunes move the plot along and provide some comic relief from the high drama of international scientific competition, the doldrums of the lack of funding, and Dr. Magnusson’s wrestling with her own health and balance between her professional and personal lives. The film’s lighthearted tone shows through nicely in little sprinkles of humour, for example with the gem “Inheritance – such a bummer.” These light touches help to defuse subject matter that could otherwise become stodgy (bench science, cancer, reproductive decisions).

The biggest problem with this movie, in the end, is that it's neither one thing, nor the other – too few big musical numbers to be a musical, and too many to be a serious film. Nevertheless, it's good fun, and injects a welcome blip of science into the genre.

Related information:

The Score: CBC/Screen Siren Pictures/Electric Company Theatre; directed by Kim Collier/Kevin Kerr/Jonathon Young

Back in 2005, featured a profile about the scientific consulation behind the original play.