Silver Screen: Jersey Boys **1/2
Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the popular Broadway show, might be the perfect counter-programming to Transformers’ rapid-edit green-screen melee. In later years, Eastwood’s pacing has downshifted from deliberate to glacial, which remains the case in this resolutely conventional musical biopic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Valli, of course, is the falsetto-voiced crooner behind Baby Boomer classics “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” But before he was screeching and scatting on the radio, he was another denizen of blue-collar New Jersey, where, in the words of one of the characters, the only ways to get out of the neighborhood were to join the Army, where you might get killed, to get mobbed up, which might get you killed, or to get famous.
Of course, we already know which path Valli took. If the screenplay, written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice adapting their own stage work, is to be believed, everybody who knew Frankie (John Lloyd Young) thought he was going to be famous, too. Judges, cops, his parents, and even the local Mafioso (Christopher Walken) thought their boy had pipes and urged him to hone his talent. That didn’t keep him from finding his way into trouble with the help of the local riffraff, most notably Tommy DeVito (Boardwalk Empire’s Vincent Piazza), founder of the Four Seasons and the film’s primary narrator.
Valli, DeVito, and their pal Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) are a mediocre trio working local gigs at small clubs and bowling alleys until they join forces with songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who wrote the novelty tune “Short Shorts” at the age of fifteen. With Gaudio writing specifically for the golden-throated Valli, the group finds massive success, although the sudden change in lifestyles causes tensions within the group and with their families.
The best bits of Jersey Boys come early on, when the group is still struggling. Tommy involves Frankie in an ill-fated heist that turns into slapstick mayhem and nearly lands our boy in jail. The boys get advice from Frankie’s barbershop boss (The Sopranos’ Steve Schirripa), from Walken’s considerate mobster, and from the pushy but savvy future Mrs. Valli. They even enlist help from Joe Pesci— yeah, that Joe Pesci, who was at the time just another neighborhood kid hustling for a buck. (The script makes a nice nod toward his legacy when someone calls him funny and he responds, “Funny how?”)
The scenes of the Four Seasons’ formative years are interesting mostly because they capture the flavor of the neighborhood, although 1950s-era New York and New Jersey have been chronicled many times before, and better, by people who were actually there. This is a genteel recapitulation of the same milieu captured so perfectly by Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets and Goodfellas and Robert De Niro in A Bronx Tale.
As the film moves along it more closely resembles the jukebox musical from whence it sprang, and becomes a hit parade/checklist of Four Seasons tunes. These are performed ably. John Lloyd Young originated the Frankie Valli role in the Broadway show, and he does an uncanny impersonation of a unique voice. Both Bergen and Lomenda are veterans of the stage production as well, while Piazza, clearly the most charismatic actor of the group, holds his own.
We leave the theater with little sense of Valli. The film is called Jersey Boys, not The Life and Times of Frankie Valli, but the group’s frontman is the obvious focus of the film, especially in the final act, after the rest of the guys have quit and Frankie hits the road as a solo act singing songs a now home-bound Gaudio pens for him in order to pay off the group’s massive tax debt. Young nails the songs but reveals little about the character, with little help from a script that’s both too reverent and removed to attain any psychological complexity. Even passing nods to his philandering feel like token admissions of his flawed humanity, and a family tragedy that no doubt defined part of Valli’s life is played as a minor plot point that breezes by in a few minutes en route to another musical number.
Jersey Boys’ Frankie is ultimately presented as a single-minded music machine who only begrudgingly engages with other aspects of life. That single-mindedness could itself be a fascinating subject, but for Eastwood and his writers it’s more a byproduct of the movie’s lack of specificity rather than a topic unto itself.
Jersey Boys is bland and inoffensive, ideal for taking your grandmother to a weekday matinee. It’s not a particularly good movie, although with its slow pacing and sepia-tinged nostalgia, it might be the only movie you can sit through after Transformers.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.