By Matthew McKibben | June 20, 2014
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Steve Schirripa, Christopher Walken, Kathrine Narducci, Lou Volpe, Johnny Cannizzaro, Michael Lomenda
Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys is one of the limpest movies I’ve ever seen, musical or otherwise. It starts off promisingly as a fun mix of a Goodfellas style mean streets movie and a musical biopic, but whatever energy Eastwood managed to pump into the beginning of the movie slowly diminishes to the point that the last half of the movie was just kind of inert and lifeless. It’s not bad in a way that offends you or where you feel relieved when it’s over. It’s bad because it’s bland and boring. And when it’s over, you’ll have to peel yourself out of your seat because you’ve been placed in a musically induced coma.
I can’t speak to the musical and what managed to survive the transition from stage to screen, but this movie is a mess. It starts off with a young Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young – who it should be noted is reprising his Tony Award winning role) navigating the mean streets of New Jersey, both avoiding and simultaneously getting into trouble with the law and some of the Jersey mob underground. Employing a narrative in which the individual members of the Four Seasons speak directly to the camera, the beginning of the movie had a good energy and humor to it, even if it felt derivative of better movies (Mean Streets or Goodfellas).
As the band gains traction and notoriety, the movie loses a lot of that energy, eventually becoming a pretty standard musical biopic. If we’re being totally honest here, there’s nothing in the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons biography that really warrants a feature length movie. They weren’t known druggies, didn’t cause any major political waves, and didn’t completely set the world on fire with their music (despite it being pretty great). The main thrust of the conflict in Jersey Boys comes from idiosyncratic interpersonal drama between the band members, as well as their incessant touring to help pay off both governmental and mob debt accrued by hot head Tommy DeVito. So if seeing people argue about the use of hotel towels and touring to pay off debt sounds engaging, this is the movie for you.
As someone who grew up listening to the Golden Oldies of the 50s and 60s, I’m very familiar with (and a fan of) Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ music. They were a great band who is perhaps underrated in their musicality, harmonies, and songwriting. It’s too bad we don’t get to hear their original recordings on the big screen, though. John Lloyd Young does a decent Frankie Valli, but there’s a reason Frankie Valli is FRANKIE VALLI. That falsetto voice and how big Valli got it to sound are not easily replicated. While I’m sure that approximation works well on the stage, it doesn’t completely work in the movie. You hear every single nuance in the music and you are constantly aware that, no, this isn’t actually Frankie Valli singing this song. I know it’s not completely fair to hold these actors to the standard of the original recordings, but unlike, say Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash or Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles, there’s not enough gravity in the rest of the performance to make you look past how different they sound from the original.
I can’t figure out why the California born Clint Eastwood felt compelled to adapt the Broadway smash Jersey Boys into a Hollywood movie. Eastwood is a director that likes to employ a slow burn in his movies. When that slow burn technique works, it’s explosive (as it was in Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby). But when that slow burn doesn’t work, as it doesn’t here, it comes off as plodding and ultimately really boring. There’s a sequence during the credit sequence in which they recreate (I’m guessing) the curtain call they used in the Broadway production of Jersey Boys. You see the guys singing under a streetlight in their tuxes, as people start dancing around them. It has an energy and sense of fun that the rest of the movie lacked and sorely needed. You really get a sense of how fun the musical must be and how fun this movie could have been.
Either Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s script was written to be disjointed, or it was overlong, causing editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach to edit heavily. Either way, there were major story beats and characters that came into the movie suddenly and then left it just as quickly.This is never more pronounced than in how they dealt with Frankie Valli’s home life. After doing a decent job at introducing his girlfriend Mary (Renee Marino), we don’t really see her again until she’s in the “I’m going to drunkenly yell at my husband for always touring” cliche that all of these movies seem to have. We then gets bits and pieces of his family life and the toll touring must have taken on Frankie Valli’s relationship with his daughters (who come out of nowhere), but it’s considered as an afterthought, at best. It’s at this point that the movie decides to take a complete left turn by thrusting a familial subplot involving how one of his daughters is getting mixed up with the wrong crowd and running away from home. Because you feel nothing about this relationship, it’s hard to give this subplot the consideration it warrants and by the time it has reached its tragic conclusion, it’s already time to move on to Frankie Valli recovering from his grief by getting the music to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Seeing how much Frankie Valli enjoyed getting that song and selling it to weary studio heads, you forget that he was burying his recently deceased daughter five minutes earlier. Either these actors didn’t sell their familial chemistry well, or there is a ton of material on the cutting room floor that fleshed all of this out.
It’s hard to place too much blame on any of the actors, as each does a decent job with the material presented. Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito is probably the most magnetic of the bunch. There are times he elevates his character above the Italian-American stereotypes that fill this movie. John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli does an okay job, but he doesn’t quite command the screen the way he seems to command a stage. Joseph Russo has a couple of scene stealing moments as Joe Pesci (yes THAT Joe Pesci). Christopher Walken is Christopher Walken. There’s not much else to say on Walken other than that if you’ve seen Walken in anything the past few years, you’ve seen him in this.
One quick note: at one point in this movie, the story flashes forward to the Four Seasons’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and the old age makeup they used was laughably bad. So if you’re keeping score at home, kiddos, this makes the second consecutive Eastwood movie (the other: J. Edgar) where the old age makeup effects are laugh out loud funny.
Like I said, I’ve not seen the Broadway musical, so I can’t compare this to that, but this movie feels like a complete missed opportunity by all involved. I’ll be curious to see how fans of the musical feel about Jersey Boys, but for me this was a bland movie about a band whose music was solid, but ultimately not worthy of a two-hour movie.