'Jersey Boys' Heavy-Handed Mama’s Meatballs Nostalgia

Clint Eastwood’s bland band biopic approach drains the energy from the stage version of this blockbuster razzmatazz jukebox musical.

Jersey Boys

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken, Mike Doyle, Renee Marino, Erica Piccininni
Rated: R
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-06-20 (General release)
UK date: 2014-06-20 (General release)

This is about all you need to know about Clint Eastwood’s unaccountably dull film version of the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons musical Jersey Boys: it takes almost an hour before the guys get around to doing “Sherry.”

The big moment comes after keyboardist and lyricist Bob Gaudio (Eric Bergen) dashes off the song in 15 minutes and the group's producer agrees to slap the thing down on vinyl. The sequence is fun, crackling with the excitement of discovery and giddiness, the thrill of all creative cylinders firing. In other words, just the sort of thing you would expect from an audience-pleasing musical that’s been playing on Broadway and around the world for nearly a decade. It’s also something of an anomaly in a film that has fundamentally miscalculated the popularity of the stage show and in the process completely underestimated the audience.

Jersey Boys starts as an origin story in Belleville, New Jersey, 1951. The cinematography embraces the same bleached-out look featured in all of Eastwood’s period films stick to (J. Edgar, Flags of Our Fathers) and the setting is barely sketched. That leaves the job of filling in the background to a series of characters performing straight-to-the-camera exposition. According to Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), the resident loudmouth and self-appointed bandleader, there are just three ways for guys like them to get out of “the neighborhood” (a construct that carries a mythological weight here): the Army, the mob, or getting famous. “For us," he explains, "it was two out of three.”

And so the band that will become the Four Seasons spends early scenes trying to score gigs while Tommy and Nick (Michael Lomenda) run with the local boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken, playing a charming Guys and Dolls-style mobster instead of the real thing). At the same time, the guys protect mama’s boy Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) from brushes with the law, since he's the one with the angelic falsetto that will ultimately carry them onto the charts. One halfway decent running gag has the cops who are hauling off one or another of Frankie’s bandmates saying to him, “Aren’t you supposed to be home by 11?”

Amid the jokes, a debt builds up between Tommy and Frankie (one that comes due with a vengeance late in the film, when a family crisis strikes). That accumulating debt soon turns Jersey Boys into a more straightforward film, one that can't accommodate such breaks for exposition, one in which it would be awkward to bop from one number to the next with the details being filled in by performers' asides to viewers. This decision to leave behind the stage show's structure is curious, given the show's runaway success.

When Rob Marshall filmed Chicago, he didn’t try to jam Bob Fosse’s meta-narrative into a standard dramatic structure. Marshall understood that film viewers can accept, just as theatergoers do, that the characters will occasionally start belting out a song with full-band accompaniment against an instantaneously-appearing backdrop; reality be damned. Certainly he tarted up the whole thing with quick edits and spotlight razzle-dazzle, but it stayed true to the original show's spirit.

This is not the case in Jersey Boys. Instead, Eastwood and screenwriters Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice (who also wrote the book for the stage show) follow the well-worn formula of the movie musical biopic, but without enthusiasm or artistry. They lard up the screen time with perfunctory family melodramas and only bust out the occasional song when they can stick the boys on a stage. This makes the early scenes -- the entertainingly energetic rise to stardom -- less a foundation for what follows than a separate chapter, distinct from the part where egos clash and old friendships fall apart.

Here the Four Seasons’ fall from grace is particularly dreary. The intra-band bickering is interrupted occasionally by battles between Frankie and his wife Mary (the fiery and ill-served Renee Marino, who is given one snappy scene as a femme fatale early on, only to spend the rest of the film nagging and screaming). And despite all that early exposition, the movie leaves out crucial scenes.

It doesn't account for the passage of time, how the Four Seasons fit into the fast-shifting pop music landscape of the era, or even how they craft their songs. Even though one of the film’s last lines recalls the image of the four young men singing under a street lamp before they became a band, that scene doesn’t appear until the end credits, a key concept in the Four Seasons' legend and history turned into an afterthought.

But even as the structure of Jersey Boys disappoints, what keeps it from being a complete slog is the vibrancy of the cast. Piazza is all nerve and bluster, hitting each syllable with combative urgency, while Bergen’s dry take on Gaudio makes for a superb counterweight (Young’s morose, dinner-plate-flat performance as Frankie is an exception). After all the film’s heavy-handed mama’s meatballs nostalgia, Gaudio delivers one of its few truly funny and honest-sounding lines: “I’m not from the neighborhood. I don’t give a fuck about the neighborhood.”


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