Monday, June 23, 2014

Review: Jersey Boys

by Adam Riske
Based on their trajectory in Jersey Boys, you would think Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons were about as big as the house band at Villapianos.

Why do they never show a band actually creating a hit song from scratch in music biopics? Don’t we want to know how the greats became great? Those questions are just an example of the myriad problems in Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of the hit Tony Award-winning musical Jersey Boys. This is one of the most generic music movies I have ever seen. What should have been a buoyant melodrama is instead a dour slog.

The plot in brief: Four young men from New Jersey (don’t worry if you forget; they will remind you) come together to form the now iconic group The Four Seasons. We follow the group from their humble beginnings to their success, eventual breakup and reunion.
Jersey Boys is not a complete disaster. The music sequences are well directed and sung, which is no surprise as three of the four cast members from productions of the stage musical reprise their roles in the movie. These moments are the highlights of Jersey Boys. Christopher Walken also gives a fun performance as the local Mafia don (not sure if that was the intent) who befriends the boys and protects them in the more seedy aspects of their career, including scam artists and debt owed to loan sharks. There is a moment that’s perfect near the beginning of the movie where Walken’s character begins to cry while hearing Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for his portrayal on the stage) sing “My Mother’s Eyes.” It’s a great character beat that informs why this career criminal takes such a personal interest in an up-and-coming singer. I wish the movie had more moments similar to this.

As for the rest of the acting, it’s hit and miss. Vincent Piazza is quite good as Tommy DeVito*, the original band leader until Frankie Valli’s talent became too much to deny. He reminded me of a young Joe Mantegna. The performance is affected, which suits the material, but it is effective. Michael Lomenda is also solid and nicely understated as the “Ringo” of the group, Nick Massi. The scene between him and Christopher Walken when Massi leaves the group is among the movie’s highlights.

Not as successful is Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, the man who wrote/co-wrote the group’s biggest hits. Bergen’s performance is the most stage-bound of the quartet and he’s saddled with some of the worst fake facial hair to ever don the silver screen. Surprisingly, the least successful performance pound for pound (mostly because it gets the most screen time) of the Jersey Boys is John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli. He’s superb in the music performances, but the dramatic moments all feel false. He’s not an expressive actor on film, which turns into a huge distraction. He seems equally effected by the highs and lows of his life. There’s a key scene where Valli loses a family member and Lloyd Young’s acting choices are more appropriate for a guy who lost his wallet.
Sadly, everything about the movie is muted and flat, most specifically the photography. Jersey Boys is among the worst shot major studio features I’ve seen in a long time. It looks as if director Eastwood (whose direction is workmanlike and indifferent, showing no passion for the music or the material) opted to put a blurry contact lens on the camera. If you watch this at home, you might think something is wrong with the settings on your television. It’s awfully color desaturated and unappealing to look at. The drama is flat because almost every relationship is missing a beat. We get the introduction and initial interactions between characters and then the next time we see them together it’s a big dramatic moment with nothing in between. Every relationship feels as if it’s missing the middle of an arc which is inexcusable for a movie of this length: 134 minutes.

Not to pile on even more, but holy shit is the makeup bad in this movie! The finale catches up with the boys at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1990 and the old age makeup ranges from resembling a tired Tom Cruise to the Ronald Reagan puppet in the Genesis “Land of Confusion” video. And it’s shown in close-up with the actors breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience. It’s the stuff of nightmares. If you can enjoy the end credits sequence -- which is out of tone with the rest of the movie, complete with gangsters dancing -- then you are easier to win over than I am. I get that it’s approximating a curtain call in a stage musical, but it just looks silly in a movie complete with a freeze at the end from all of the actors before the screen goes black and the credits continue.
I wasn’t bored by Jersey Boys as much as actively disappointed. It’s a lazy biopic with nothing original to say about the group or to bring to the musical genre. A movie like this should feel as if you’re listening to a Four Seasons album. It should capture that energy to give a representation of the band and explain why they became icons of pop music. Instead, we get the tried and true behind-the-scenes story we’ve seen time and time again. A director with as strong of a resume as Clint Eastwood should be able to deliver a better movie. This is one of those cases where a possibly less talented director (e.g. someone such as Rob Marshall or Jon Favreau – who was the original choice to direct but left the production) might have been a better suited director for the material.

*Fun fact: According to the movie, the band was partly brought together by Joe Pesci. Yes, THAT Joe Pesci. An actor even plays him in the movie and, in a funny character choice, is constantly chewing on a toothpick. Does the name Tommy DeVito sound familiar? That’s because it’s the same name as the character Joe Pesci plays in Goodfellas. It’s not the same guy (Tommy DeVito was used as pseudonym for a real life gangster named Tommy DeSimone), but it’s the same name. In other words, the Four Seasons did not kill Billy Batts.


  1. Good review Adam - I didn't have a whole lot of interest in this anyway, but I never like to hear any movie isn't very good. A biopic shouldn't exist unless it can tell a story that's either different from or better told than what a documentary could do. I think that's why there's never been a real attempt to make a "big" Beatles biopic for example - everyone knows better than to even try - Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons are no Beatles and they very well could have a story worth telling on film, but it sounds like this wasn't it.

    1. The movie feels imformed by other movies and false. It's like Clint Eastwood binged on TV movies about bands and decided to make his own beat by beat. Either that or many, many bands follow the same trajectory with little deviation.

      If they wanted to make a good music movie they should just show a band creating a now classic album - working together to write it, produce it, record it etc. That would give you a better idea of the genesis of some of these songs, how the artists work, the band dynamics and more.

    2. One problem I suspect is that the original musical was mostly designed to showcase the music - it was a nostalgia trip, with the story only needed to stitch the musical sequences together. When they made a movie they pretty much just transplanted the original "book," and now its shallowness becomes much more apparent.

    3. Yes that does sound much more interesting. I haven't seen J. Edgar yet but it seems like Clint's losing it.

    4. That's why I should be pitcing movies. They would call me Mr. Greenlit, because everything would be a good or improved idea.

      J Edgar is not very good. Clint needs to avoid old age makeup at all costs.

    5. Clint Eastwood just seems like such an odd choice for this movie to me, and his apparent disinterest in the material or music seems to solidify that. I'm with you that somebody else would have been able to make this much better, but it sounds like Eastwood isn't it. At least find someone who cares more.

  2. I'm not as down on it as Adam is, but I'd describe the movie as perfectly average. It just feels kind of OK, kind of fun, kind of a lot of things. Some nice music, some decent performances (I'd disagree on Erich Bergen, who I think is one of the better performances in the movie), but nothing special or distinctive at all.

    But geez, that end sequence. I'm right with you on that, Adam, it just feels weird. I honestly was waiting for the dead family member to pop up in the sequence and complete the horridness of the moment (for goodness sake, at one point Franki is dancing with both of his ex wives. What the hell was up with that?)

  3. I won't be checking this out, but I will be checking out "Get on Up." How do you think that will be?

    1. I think it looks awfully generic but I'm hoping to be proven wrong.