Watching the early scenes of "Jersey Boys" had me wishing Martin Scorsese had helmed the film adaption of the Broadway hit instead of Clint Eastwood. This is the same turf as Scorsese had covered in "Mean Streets" and "Goodfellas" - young Italian-American men on the verge of a life in crime. Imagine the energy he would have brought to their shenanigans! At least they wouldn't have seemed as comically lame as they do in Eastwood's stolid, old-fashioned version. Set In the mid-1950s, it could have been made back then as well.
Perhaps that is Eastwood's point - to make a movie that Baby Boomers can relate. That demographic has kept the show open on Broadway for seven years, as well as Vegas and the road. Can they be lured to the cineplex? It is the gamble that Eastwood and Warner Brothers are banking on. It's hard to think this film has much appeal to those waiting for the new "Transformers" movie.
Perhaps what drew Eastwood to the project was a personal connection. He even makes a self-referential point that he was one of the Four Seasons' peers with a quick shot of the actor as the rugged cowboy he played on the TV series "Rawhide," as if he was nodding to the singing group he was likely a fan of from their string of #1 hits. Maybe that connection is what drew Eastwood into wanting to direct the film in the first place. Whatever the reason, he made for an awkward choice. His literal, no-nonsense style doesn't allow the theatricality of the Broadway show to breathe. Even the story's iconic musical moment - the group standing beneath a street light singing their first hit "Sherry" a Capella - is shown at the film's end, robbing it of its dramatic resonance.
Not that the film is a complete failures; it's just dull and so reverential of its principals as to have any edge. (No surprise here - it was produced by Valli and fellow Season Bob Gaudio.) The film's chief plus is John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, who reprises his Tony-winning performance with his an uncanny echo of Valli's piercing falsetto; it is remarkable, especially considering the vocals are filmed in real time (as they were in "Les Miserables"). But since the numbers are presentational - recreations of actual performances - the technique is far too subtle to capture the intensity of the live performance in the theater. The painstaking mimicry is exceptional to a fault: The singing seems dubbed.
Adapting their book from the musical, screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice use the device of each group member narrating a section of the Four Seasons' story. On stage such a conceit worked, but on film it is stagy: A way of connecting the dots in a story that covers 30 years with four principal characters. Little wonder the film is like a PowerPoint presentation with songs. Interesting characters are introduced with verve, such as Valli's wife, Mary (Renee Marino) only to be reduced to one-note caricatures (in the wasted Marino's case, the shrewish, drunken wife). Only Mike Doyle rises above the skittishly-presented stereotype as musical wunderkind Bob Crewe, an out gay man so self-assured he doesn't give a shit who knows it. Doyle embodies the character with such a quirky style as to defy being pigeonholed. Also, Christopher Walken offers a drolly funny take on a mob boss, one that takes a liking to Valli and acts as his Godfather, but the part is little more than a gangster that would be right at home in "Guys and Dolls."
But the film's biggest issue is its inability to make these Jersey boys little more than show business shtick figures - nice Frankie DeVito, manipulative Tommy DeVito (Nick Piazza), meek Nick Massi (Mike Lamenda) and visionary Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) never connect emotionally, so their meteoric rise and subsequent disintegration never feels more than a string of well-worn cliches. Only the most ardent fans will be drawn into this familiar tale of friendship, betrayal and sacrifice. The emotional pull of the similarly-themed "Dreamgirls" is missing, and the film's biggest moment, when Valli achieves the recognition he strives for as a singer doing it alone, just lacks the sense of triumph the filmmakers are striving for. It just seems like another moment of pop shlock. Even the use of another Valli hit, "My Eyes Adored You," to frame his difficult relationship with an estranged daughter who dies of a drug overdose, is cheesy and unconvincing -the stuff of an old made-for-television movie.
Eastwood showed he couldn't be a musical star as an actor in the peculiar adaptation of "Paint Your Wagon" decades ago; with "Jersey Boys" he shows he can't helm one, either.