Monday, June 23, 2014

Some Night That Was: Off-key "Jersey Boys" rarely pops, despite that music

Jersey Boys (2014)
134 min., rated R.

Clint Eastwood would not be one's first choice to bring the popular 2005 Broadway jukebox musical "Jersey Boys" to the screen. Despite music being within his wheelhousehe directed "Bird," the 1988 biopic on jazz legend Charlie "Bird" Parker, and has been a composer for most of his films—Eastwood is clearly more comfortable with making weighty, melancholy films, like "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," "Letters from Iwo Jima," and "Changeling," than a splashy musical centering on '60s pop group Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Apart from performances in bars and on the re-created "American Bandstand" and "The Ed Sullivan Show," as well as the closing credits, there are actually no showy production numbers, leaving this slavishly faithful big-screen adaptation to just dutifully follow the conventional rise-and-fall-to-fame biopic format in outline form and make up for a shortage of depth with clichés. "Jersey Boys" should explode and pop off the screen, and it just seems unremarkably low-wattage and bereft of dramatic interest. Those timelessly catchy doo-wop tunes will surely stick in your head, but the last thing the viewer should feel at the end of the show is neutral.

The story begins in a neighborhood Belleville, N.J., circa 1951, where one was either killed in the mob, or in the war, or you got famous, and don't you forget it. Holier-than-thou two-bit criminal Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) takes 16-year-old hairdresser wannabe Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) under his wing after hearing the kid's voice of an angel. It's not long before DeVito's buddy, Joe Pesci (Joey Russo)—yeah, that one—introduces Tommy, Frankie and bass guitarist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) to songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who's famous for composing the novelty song "Short Shorts" and ends up joining the group. Success comes calling when the band starts to find their harmonic sound, changes their name from "The Four Lovers" to "(Frankie Valli and) The Four Seasons," and finds backing from recorder producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle). Aside from making top hit songs out of "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man," the band members deal with their women and loan sharks and have numerous falling-outs.

Director Eastwood, working from a script by musical book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, approach their story as a straightforward rags-to-riches, boom-and-bust drama. The highs and lows that unfold on screen may have really happened in Frankie Valli's life—the financial problems, the infighting and bickering, an unsupportive wife, the loss of a child—but the way in which the story is told didn't have to be so safe and pedestrian, combined with such lethargic pacing. What does work are the cute contrivances acting as ideas for songs going off in Bob Gaudio's head; who knew "Big Girls Don't Cry" simply came from the boys watching Kirk Douglas slap Jan Sterling on the tube? Also, before the band's name change, Frankie takes it as a sign, literally, when the "Four Seasons Hotel" sign lights up outside of a bowling alley. Existing because it was in the show, the device of characters breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera directly as "Rashomon"-style unreliable narrators giving their own version on the story doesn't always work as playfully and as insightfully as it should. Less of a terminal problem, though certainly odd, the film is so insular, existing in a bubble and ignoring the context of its time and place, as if the world saw nothing but some doo-wop pop group. In what should have been the heart of the film, Frankie's father-daughter relationship with Francine (Freya Tingley) is so poorly handled and barely there. When a frame of reference would have helped immensely, the screenplay employs the shorthand, as if the recurring use of "My Eyes Adored You" and a funeral scene will automatically seal the deal. Apparently, Francine wasted her singing talent on drugs, and suddenly, we're expected to care, but it's too little, too late. The emotional moments should matter more and they just don't register. This glossy, square "Jersey Boys" deserved a livelier, punchier stage-to-screen treatment, one that actually capitalizes on what made the show such a success on the Great White Way and what would make Frankie Valli's life so fascinating to watch. 

The casting is primarily where Eastwood gets things more right than wrong. Originating the role of Frankie Valli that made him a Tony-winner and reprising it for the screen, theater vet John Lloyd Young emulates his real-life counterpart's distinct falsetto voice perfectly, indeed, and he has a magnetic smile, to boot. He's kind of a bland screen presence, though, and during some of his bigger scenes, Young seems to still be expressing for the stage. Portraying Frankie as a real person, he is mostly a cipher, as there is no sense of what makes him tick. Was Frankie in it for the money, or women, or really his passion for music? It's probably the latter, but we never feel it. Without hamming up the badda bing, badda boom shtick too much, Vincent Piazza charges the film with charismatic juice and a committed gusto every time he's on screen as wiseguy leader Tommy DeVito. As Four Seasons members Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi, Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda, both of whom have performed the show with separate touring companies, slip back into their roles with ease and pep. Renée Marino, also reprising her role from the stage in her feature film debut, is a frisky fireball as Frankie's wife, Mary Delgado, at least when eyeing up her soon-to-be husband and during their snappily written first date. One minute the newly married Frankie and Mary are walking happily out of the church, and scenes later they have a daughter and then three daughters. Once Mary gets pushed to the margins, Marino's characterization grows into a boozy, one-note nag and stays there, alas. As 'Gyp' DeCarlo, the only mob boss who would weep at the sound of Frankie's angelic voice, Christopher Walken brings a seasoned vitality that is more than welcome. Finally, and quite possibly the best in show next to those playing the Four Seasons, Mike Doyle is vibrant and funny as tough, gay record dealer Bob Crewe, his flamboyance just teetering on caricatured stereotype but never toppling over into embarrassment.

Dramatically flat and emotionally unsatisfying, "Jersey Boys" falls so short of the mark that one feels like crying like a little girl. Shot by Tom Stern, Eastwood's longtime cinematographer, with glazed, desaturated colors, the film even looks solid. Production values are workmanlike all around, except for an oddly artificial use of rear projection in a driving scene out of a '60s movie and the finale's hokey old-age make-up, further hampered by close-ups that distractingly draw attention to the actors' pearly whites. In the last five minutes or so, Frankie and the Four Seasons reunite at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and perform "Who Loves You" before the film segues into a curtain call of a full-blown, show-stopping musical number to "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." It's alive and jubilant and, finally, completely emblematic of what seems to be missing all along from the previous 129 minutes—energy—that you're almost convinced you've seen a more entertaining show than you really have. It's not hard to get one's foot tapping to a couple of the musical moments beforehand, but connecting with superficially drawn characters and scattershot "highlights" storytelling on an emotional level remains an unmanageable task. There are going to be audiences of a certain age who like "Jersey Boys," the movie, no matter what, but it can't work on nostalgia and hit songs alone. Few will be walking on air and able to agree with Frankie saying, "That was the best."


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