Based on the smash jukebox musical that ran for 12 years on Broadway, has raked in more than a billion dollars, and is playing in theaters around the world, Jersey Boys was adapted for the screen by its original theatrical writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and is directed by Clint Eastwood. It’s the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, whose string of hits about a girl named Sherry, a rag doll, walking like a man, and big girls not crying were iconic in the 1960s Golden Age of pop. It’s that innocently odd, anthem-like music that gives this film what juice it has, and early into its 2 hours and 14 minutes, many viewers will have begun to yearn for the next number.
Despite some strong performances, some very occasional humor, and a few good sequences, the film is labored and uninvolving, perhaps because it never quite knows what it wants to be. Many of the most important choices about how to adapt the live show seem to have gone thumpingly wrong.
Eastwood’s characteristically unhurried, traditional narrative style has served some of his better films powerfully, giving their stories and characters depth and specificity that linger. Here, that approach feels distended. There are dramatic scenes that lack focus and play too long, and the general weighting of the movie feels off: for every soaring musical moment, there are interminable minutes of violent outbursts, bickering, and brooding. Brickman and Elice may bear some of the blame, but it’s particularly Eastwood’s treatment of the material that seems mismatched. At one point John Favreau—the Iron Man series, Chef—was scheduled to direct the film, and it’s interesting to contemplate how he, or perhaps Rob Marshall (Chicago) or Phyllida Lloyd (Mama Mia), might have upped the energy level and handled both the backstage story and integration of the musical numbers with more zest.
The storytelling is unbalanced and erratic, and as the tone and pace lurch from lighthearted whimsy to gritty melodrama, the audience is likely to feel betrayed. As soon as we’re seduced into a fun, nostalgic reimagining of the group’s history and its music, we’re slammed with redundant stridencies. Pulling back veils to reveal the personal challenges and unsavory shadows of a popular artist or enterprise is a time-honored Hollywood tradition, but it either works or it doesn’t—and regardless of whether Jersey Boys works in live performances, the film is simply not all it could have been.
It is the music that makes the effort worthwhile. Every time you hear the introductory downbeat to one of the familiar classics you’ll remember why you’re bothering. That and some of the actors’ performances lift the film above the turgid directorial pace.
John Lloyd Young reprises his Tony Award-winning role as Frankie Valli, and does an excellent job replicating that trademark falsetto. Though he’s not terribly expressive on screen, it’s easy to imagine Young finding continued success onstage or in television. Michael Lomenda as basso Mick Massi also came from the Broadway cast, as did Erich Bergen as songwriting master Bob Gaudio. Bergen is an attractive and appealing actor who displays both human substance and wry levity. The women’s roles are negligible, but Renee Marino is a stand-out as Frankie’s wife. Given very little to do, Marino makes the most of it; this stage veteran, like Bergen, is more than ready for big-screen cameras.
As the fourth member of the group, Vincent Piazza (from the HBO series Boardwalk Empire) plays Tommy DeVito, who initially helps get the guys started and then over and over proves their biggest stumbling block. Piazza is very good, though the impact of his performance is eventually dulled by the film’s structural problems. We’re told at the beginning that Tommy is, in the words of another character, “a two-bit hustler” and the film goes on—and on—proving it. Mike Doyle plays recording impresario Bob Crewe with panache, and the always droll Christopher Walken’s performance as Gyp DiCarlo, a gentlemanly syndicate figure who becomes a big Valli fan, is delightfully shrewd. It’s great fun watching this old pro deploy his unique deadpan with such elegant charm; his are among the film’s most assured and finely shaped scenes.
– Hadley Hury
(Available through Netflix, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and other select streaming sites)