Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Jersey Boys

JERSEY BOYS (Clint Eastwood, 2014)

The final scene of JERSEY BOYS is engineered to rouse viewers from their seats to applaud. At a live show it would certainly accomplish the task. The film’s version of a curtain call overflows with joy and energy and sends the audience home on a high note. The question it raises, though, is why the rest of director Clint Eastwood’s muted adaptation of the Broadway musical fails to possess the same liveliness in everything leading up to it. He takes a gaudy showbiz tale and turns it into something visually and dramatically drab.

The story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons begins in 1951 in Belleville, New Jersey. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) explains that the army, the mob, or fame were the options for getting out of the working class neighborhood at the time. While Tommy has a musical group with his brother Nick (Johnny Cannizzaro) that they hope could lead them down the third path, they seem most likely to succeed through criminal endeavors. Tommy and Nick spend separate stints in prison, but when they regroup, they add a secret weapon to their act in their friend Frankie (John Lloyd Young), whose falsetto voice gives them a unique sound.

Through the years the lineup changes more. Tommy’s brother is out, and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) is in as bassist. There’s dissension in the ranks when it comes time to decide if Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who already has written the hit song “Short Shorts”, should be made a member of the group currently known as The Four Lovers. Bob can write, play, and sing and has business savvy. He wants an equal share in the group. Tommy resists but gives in when Frankie threatens to leave if Bob isn’t accepted on his terms. They shop demos with little success before landing a contract that, to their chagrin, limits them to being backup singers. It’s not until producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) hears them sing “Sherry” that the guys, now known as The Four Seasons, break through on their own.

The vitality of the music and the characters’ youthful vim and vigor call for a treatment less restrained than what Eastwood gives the material. For a film about young guys seeking to make their marks in a competitive industry, JERSEY BOYS summons all the feistiness of a comatose patient. The peppy, timeless songs bridge the slow patches but can’t make up for the film’s lethargy. Eastwood’s master shot approach seems solely functional, as though capturing what’s on the page and the act of reminiscing are sufficient. It’s a film that asks if you remember when and, upon receiving an affirmative answer, stops the conversation thinking that there’s nothing else to say. While JERSEY BOYS depicts another era, the time compression and lack of markers set it adrift in vague nostalgia of the 1950s and ‘60s without any sense of how The Four Seasons fit into the changing world.

Eastwood is an accomplished director in his own right, but his tepid take on JERSEY BOYS makes one wonder what Martin Scorsese might have done instead. There’s no question that the setting, pop music, and tough guys, including an underutilized Christopher Walken as a local mob boss who takes care of problems for the boys when they get in fixes, are well-suited to Scorsese and his filmography. More importantly in this instance, Scorsese still makes films like a whippersnapper even if he isn’t one. Eastwood’s version of JERSEY BOYS is mounted like a respectful but emotionally distant museum piece. It even looks like a black-and-white film that’s been tinted in an attempt to freshen it up.

Grade: C

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