Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Jersey Boys Review

Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” is a handsome looking movie. As with “J Edgar,” Eastwood and his cinematographer Tom Stern shoot this one in mostly low light giving the entire picture a noir-ish look that also punctuates James M Murakami’s production design, making the period décor—the movie spans from the 1950’s to the 1990’s—pop off the screen.

Based on the hit Broadway musical, “Jersey Boys” recounts the story of the music group Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, from their origins in a tough New Jersey neighborhood, to their fame and finally to Valli’s solo career. Unfortunately, the production design is the only thing that really pops as the movie—despite featuring some great music—suffers from a narrative that gets increasingly less interesting and more cliché, and from a general lack of energy. Even the musical performances failed to resonate in my mind as I type this review.

That being said the film gets off to a pretty great start. When we first meet the Four Seasons they’re just a bunch of young Jersey hoods getting into trouble, going nowhere, and in their own words “busting each others’ balls.” There’s the bandleader Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), the biggest troublemaker of the group, the bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda, who does fine but for the life of me I can’t remember anything else about the character’s personality) and of course Mr. Valli himself (played by John Lloyd Young), the shyest member of the group but also the one with the voice that would catapult the band to fame. There’s also Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), the songwriter of the foursome who joins a little later.

This is the only section of the movie that has any kind of energy in it. Watching the four of them mess around with one another, bullshitting, spouting New Jersey slang as they play nightclubs and try to stay out of trouble—usually failing to do so—is intoxicating. Not to mention the fact that the four actors have incredible chemistry, playing off each other almost perfectly. There’s something authentic and easygoing about this first section. Even Christopher Walken in a minor role as a mob boss and supporter of the group manages to make a small but memorable impression.

However, it’s when it moves away from being about The Jersey Boys (a group of scrappy underdogs from the wrong side of the tracks) and about the Four Seasons (the band) that the picture begins to decline in quality. “The Jersey Boys” falls into the typical musician biopic traps; there’s the “we’re getting famous montage” showing them writing and recording songs—we get to hear all of their hits, one after the other-- as well as some heavy partying. And of course there’s the falling out between the group. Tommy becomes the loose cannon of the group, running up a huge debt to some mobsters. Aside from the fact that this is Musician biopic 101 stuff the drama feels forced and soap opera-esque. There are moments between the band members that are meant to be taken serious but are undone by some really bad overacting and dialogue. All that easygoing, genuine energy that’s built up in the first thirty or forty minutes practically dissipates and Eastwood puts the film into autopilot.

Things get even worse when the band breaks up and the focus of the movie turns to Frankie’s solo career (with Bob writing and producing). That’s because Frankie—as a character—is, well…bland. He can sing, god bless him, but he’s by far the blandest of the group. He’s the good boy, the only one who gets married and has a family, and the one who gets stepped on. And he stays in this one note for the entire movie. He’s tolerable in the early section of the movie because he’s part of a group and the brotherly relationship he has with the other three is kind of endearing. Though, when it’s just Frankie it’s not compelling. I would have preferred the movie follow Tommy around. Newcomer Lloyd Young does the best he can and singing wise he’s very good but the role simply doesn’t have enough meat to sustain the last act of the movie.

On top of that, more drama is shoehorned into the plot. Frankie’s fame and constant being on the road takes its toll on his family. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this but Eastwood handles it in such a flimsy way, introducing this domestic drama at seemingly random moments. The trouble involving Frankie’s troubled adolescent daughter comes out of nowhere and we’re supposed to care about it even though we’ve never seen this kid or heard about this trouble before. At this point though, the picture has pretty much slowed to halt.

There are other issues. The musical numbers, while not bad, don’t really stick with you. Instead feeling like an afterthought to the narrative when they should be front and center. Since this is a movie adaptation of a stage musical I imagine screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (the original authors of the musical) had to add a lot more story and dialogue and you can see that. At two hours and fifteen minutes the movie is weighed down by its cliché story and drags on. And finally, there’s some really really bad old age makeup at the end of the picture. I know this sounds like nitpicking but this is the second time in a row (after “J Edgar”) that an Eastwood movie has had bad old age make up. I’m talking about some amateur zombie movie makeup in certain shots. I’m thinking he should stay away from that.

I could list more problems but there’s not really any point. I’m sure die hard fans of the musical will go see this “Jersey Boys,” and probably find enjoyment from it but I feel like they—and everyone else curious about the movie—would be better off staying home and listening to the original Four Seasons music. I haven’t seen the original stage play but my mom who has says that the music is really the only thing that matters. The music is what’s going to live on whereas this movie will be quickly forgotten.


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