Part jukebox musical and part biography of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” proves a disappointment on both scores. Its recreations of the group’s performances, though elegantly done, are mostly fragmentary, and however close to truth the dramatic portions of the picture might be, they come across as clichéd and flat-footed. As a result the movie is neither very entertaining nor especially enlightening.
The focus of the script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, based on their book for the successful stage version, focuses on Valli (John Lloyd Young), nee Frankie Castelluccio, who’s introduced as a naïve sixteen-year old working in a Belleville barbershop, where his voice catches the ear of a regular, mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). But though DeCarlo prophesies a great future for the kid, it’s Frankie’s older pal Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), a hustler who also has ties to Gyp, who introduces him to the stage. Tommy’s got a band, and though both he are his bass guitarist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) rotate in and out of jail for petty crimes, they both realize that Frankie, with his clear, piercing falsetto, is something special, things really don’t gel for them until they add a fourth player to the group—Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), not a homeboy but a guy who doesn’t only play but writes catchy songs as well. Still, it’s rough going until they sign with flashy promoter Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), change their name to the Four Seasons and get the dough to make a real record—the start of DeVito’s getting into trouble with mob-associated loan sharks—that they hit it really big.
Success, of course, comes at a stiff price. Frankie’s youthful marriage to hard-edged Jersey girl Mary Delgado (Renee Marino) quickly goes south as he’s off on the road all the time and she hits the bottle. Tommy’s propensity to gamble and lose big will put him deeply in debt to the sharks. Frankie’s daughters will suffer from his absence, with Francine (Grace Kelley, and later Freya Tingley) eventually running away from home and turning to drugs despite her dad’s efforts to intervene. And the band ultimately implodes, leaving Frankie to become effectively a solo act subsisting on gigs in smaller clubs and casinos as he struggles to pay off what Tommy owes. Still, years later the quartet will reunite for a “hall of fame” induction ceremony.
There’s a pat rise-and-fall trajectory to this story that may very well be true, but isn’t terribly unusual, as far as show-business sagas go. Nor, as the writers and Eastwood choose to tell it, is it particularly illuminating. A major problem is the decision to retain from the play the device of breaking down the fourth wall by having characters—the other three members of the Seasons, but not Valli—effectively narrate portions of the tale to explain circumstances and make supposedly wry observations on what’s happened. It’s a mechanism that works well on the stage but rarely does on screen—and doesn’t in this instance. Chronological difficulties also crop up: the picture mostly follows a standard timeline, but at one point—at the group’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan show—it abruptly cuts back two years to address one particular story thread. (It would have been nice if Eastwood occasionally gave us some indication of the years in which things are happening, or some larger historical context for them, but except at the beginning and end he doesn’t bother. And the awful old-age makeup at the close is embarrassing.) And the entire film suffers from a lack of clear transitions, with events simply stumbling into one another.
But even more exasperating than the structural missteps are weaknesses in characterization and direction. By the close of more than two hours, one might expect to have gotten some insight into who Frankie Castelluccio/Valli was, but as he’s presented—and played rather blandly—by Young, the fellow is never much more than a good-hearted, rather dim guy with an unusual voice, virtually a long-suffering saint. (He does take a mistress, but neither she nor Marino as Valli’s wife gets more than perfunctory treatment, though the latter does get to chew the scenery early on during her first “date” with the singer). And while Gaudio and Massi receive paper-thin treatment (though Bergen and Lomenda give perfectly adequate performances), entirely too much time is devoted to DeVito, whom Piazza tiresomely presents as a pint-sized “Sopranos” wannabe. Apart from the foursome, Walken pretty much sleeps through the role of DeCarlo, relying on his well-known mannerisms to carry his scenes, and Doyle does a gay routine as Crewe whose flamboyance would be more at home on the stage, where one is expected to play to the rafters. Joseph Russo gets a few amusing moments as Joey Pesci (yes, the future actor), the guy who introduces Gaudio to the group.
Russo brings a few chuckles to the proceedings, which they desperately need, since apart from Walken’s shtick the treatment, under Eastwood’s heavy hand, is curiously solemn (as well as overdoing the “Jersey” vibe, which is easy to do). Of course there’s some relief from the prevailing sense of gloom that the direction and Tom Stern’s cinematography, which emphasizes rather drearily brownish images, create in the musical sequences; but these are for the most part oddly truncated, though we are given a couple of more extended examples toward the close, including one under the end titles. (Earlier on there’s also the hackneyed moments when the four first come together and spontaneously pour out a perfectly calibrated rendition of a song that three of them are encountering for the first time.) Of course, it’s possible that some will simply not care for the sound the group produces. Young, Bergen, Lomenda and Piazza do an excellent job of imitating the originals, but you might be forgiven if the result doesn’t make you think that you’re attending a new “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie. On the other hand, everyone will have to admire the attention to period detail evinced in James J. Murakami’s production design, the art direction supervised by Patrick M. Sullivan, Ronald R. Reiss’s set decoration and Deborah Hopper’s costume design.
So anyone going to “Jersey Boys” expecting an exuberant time are bound to be disappointed with Eastwood’s film, which is more an old-fashioned rags-to-riches-to-rags show-biz melodrama punctuated by a few laughs and some musical interludes.