by Kathie Smith
Jersey Boys’ migration from stage to screen is about as surprising as Michael Bay’s decision to make yet another Transformers movie. Success—loosely defined by awards and box office—proliferates imitation if not regurgitation. So like West Side Story, Cabaret, Mama Mia! and Les Misérables that came before it (and Into the Woods and no doubt The Book of Mormon that will come after), Jersey Boys is no more than a continuation of the fruitful yet strange relationship back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway. (Xanadu musical, anyone?)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Tim Headington, Graham King, Robert Lorenz
Writers: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice
Cinematographer: Tom Stern
Editors: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
Cast: Vincent Piazza, John Lloyd Young, Michael Lomenda, Erich Bergen, Christopher Walken, Renée Marino, Joseph Russo, Mike Doyle, Johnny Cannizzaro, Kathrine Narducci, Lou Volpe
US Theatrical Release: June 20, 2014
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
The foundation of Jersey Boys lies in the simple sentimentality of the jukebox 45 and the ubiquitous nature of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons’ music, aimed directly at baby boomers but with a timeline broad enough to snare their adult children and maybe even the grandkids. But it also capitalizes on the against all odds “true story” of three young men from the ‘hood in Belleville, New Jersey, where you have three options of escape, as narrated by Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza): join the army and maybe you’ll get killed; get “mobbed up” and maybe you’ll get killed; or become famous. This is the sort of reductive logic that is taken for granted and permeates nearly every moment of Jersey Boys’ simplistic narrative, skimming the various landmarks in The Four Seasons’ road to fame that resonate very little beyond a pleasant toe tap.
Tommy DeVito is a Jersey chump who spends his time working for local mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), playing in a band with his friend Nick (Michael Lomenda), and cycling in and out of jail with various petty crime hijinks. Tommy’s buddy Frankie (John Lloyd Young) toils away in a barbershop and dreams of using his falsetto voice as a ticket out of Belleville. When Tommy spontaneously invites Frankie up on stage to sing with his band, the pieces predictably start to fall into place.
With the addition of writer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) to the band, harmonizing among the four members seemingly comes at the drop of a hat. The quartet quickly moves from crooning “Sherry” over the phone to their producer (just written in a creative cloud on the bus) to doing synchronized steps on American Bandstand. If you are a sucker for clichéd nostalgia or cute coincidences, perhaps the unconvincing plot won’t be a problem. They derive their band name, for example, with a snap of the fingers from the blinking neon sign of a bowling alley, and the spark for “Big Girls Don’t Cry” comes from a casual comment about Jan Sterling’s character in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.
As an adaptation of a Broadway musical, Jersey Boys never commits to its theatrical roots, but it also fails to delve into the overwrought dramatic tendencies you might expect from Clint Eastwood in the director’s chair. The film opens with Tommy directly addressing the camera: “You wanna hear the real story—I’m the one you wanna talk to.” The real story, of course, lies somewhere beneath the veneer (not to be found in this movie) as we cycle through the ostensible perspectives of the band members, each one of them turning to us at various junctures as confidants.
Eastwood may be a man of the era, but he never finds his stride with the material until the final credit sequence, when he dives headfirst into a song-and-dance sequence that displays how fun the movie could have been. Levity above the blasé only arrives in cringe-worthy moments that feel all too typical for Eastwood (he who talks to a chair), including jabs at fine art, classical music, literature, and the perennial favorite: homosexuality. Eastwood even gets a little cheeky by making a guest appearance in the form of a clip from Rawhide just as the naïve Bob is about to lose his virginity and become a man.
Musicals represent an unabashed embrace of entertainment, and, much like action movies, the thrills come first and the story second. Jersey Boys, at least in film form, seems to have missed the opportunity to deliver an enjoyable guilty pleasure, instead attempting dramatic license with a lark. Tommy’s financial troubles, Frankie’s family problems, and the band’s eventual fissure are played out with little heft or engagement. Rags to riches or not, the emotional ploys barely register on a scale that should have been left in the capable hands of Tommy, Nick, Bob and Frankie’s familiar and likable circle of fifths.