It became rather common for people to question the mental faculties of Clint Eastwood following his bewildered, rambling conversation with an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention. If he had taken the time to think about what he was going to say instead of just winging it on national television, he could’ve possibly made something of a coherent point. The same could be say of Jersey Boys, Eastwood’s latest directorial effort. Based upon the hit Broadway musical about the rise and fall of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, Jersey Boys is a rambling mess lacking in a central theme or identity. Is it a musical? Is it a gangster film? Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? It’s a little of each without ever being a whole of anything.
Jersey Boys is a frustrating film to watch because there are glimpses of an interesting film, but its ramshackle construction, lethargic pacing, and reliance on tired musical biography clichés is its undoing. Opening with the band as juvenile delinquents in suburban New Jersey, their only ways out are joining the army, joining the mob, or becoming famous. These early scenes are easily the best the film has to offer – briefly humorous yet mostly forgettable moments about Italian-American Catholics and botched robberies are the highlights.
Each member of the band takes turns breaking the 4th wall and narrating directly to the camera. What could be an interesting way to tell the story of a band is never fully realized. Instead of making a doo wop Rashomon, revisiting the same scene from a different perspective, the film avoids subjective storytelling in favor of each character narrating segments of the story. It’s merely a gimmick that, when combined with the heavy Jersey accents and mob ties, leads to jokes like, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Jersey Boy.”
Of all the frustrating things about Jersey Boys, the fact that the characters don’t change from their introduction to the film’s conclusion is maddening. Tommy Devito (Vincent Piazza) is a selfish little shit at the start and stays that way throughout the duration of the picture. The same is true of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) as a naïve, trusting individual, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) as the forward-thinking talented songwriter, Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) as the frustrated bass player, or Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) the mob boss with a heart of gold. Over the decades the story takes place nobody evolves beyond their first appearance.
The personal life of Frankie Valli is comically mishandled. After one gig Frankie meets Mary (Renee Marino), a quick-witted fast-talking woman. Cut to: they’re married. Then Mary’s character disappears from the film for about a half-hour, only to reappear as a bitter, drunk mother of three. This is followed by Frankie leaving his home with a couple of suitcases. Only later do we find out that he was leaving due to divorce, not for another tour. Later in the film, after another half-hour devoid of Frankie’s family, his ex-wife calls informing him that his daughter has run away. Frankie tracks her down and guides her to start her own singing career. Then she dies. This would be a tragic moment if their relationship had been built over more than just two scenes. Even worse, we’re unaware to the cause of death for a while until Frankie spews some line about pills or something.
The haphazard familial elements are just a microcosm of the film’s lack of identity. The first 45 minutes of the film lack any musical numbers, and then the film becomes a greatest hits compilation for a half-hour, and then drops the musical numbers only to have them appear again sporadically. The same could be said of the 4th wall-breaking narration which disappears for long stretches of the film’s bloated running time.
Jersey Boys may be the most visually drab musical in film history. Eastwood’s visual style has consisted of heavily desaturated color for some time, but a bubblegum pop musical should, you know, pop visually. It also features one of the worst looking driving sequences I’ve ever seen, like they forgot to fill in the green screen background until moments before striking the print.
The cast for the most part hold their own, all of them undoubtedly excellent singers. Vincent Piazza is adequate, though his overbearing Jersey accent becomes grating. John Lloyd Young is modestly acceptable as Frankie Valli, though his singing voice is a near double to Valli’s helium infused falsetto. It’s rather eerie how much Erich Bergen looks like Chris Klein, the comically bad actor from the American Pie series. Christopher Walken feels wasted playing, well, Christopher Walken. Poor Renee Marino is given some snappy dialogue in her first scene only to devolve into a clichéd cartoon character in subsequent scenes. Nobody really shines, but how can you when there’s practically no color?
I guess I can’t fault the octogenarian Eastwood for having not seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, however, that doesn’t take everyone surrounding Eastwood – cast, crew, assistants – off the hook for not alerting him of its existence. The film contains numerous Dewey Cox moments. The songwriting scenes, the moment the record becomes a hit, the marital troubles, and culminating with the band reuniting, all the members donning cheap-looking old age make-up. Apparently Eastwood learned nothing about old age make-up following the disastrous look of Leonardo Dicaprio in J. Edgar.
Watching the film, I found myself resisting the urge to just scream, “SOMETHING HAPPEN ALREADY!” and “JUST FUCKING END!” Judging from the audience reaction at our screening, those eligible for Social Security will definitely enjoy this film. For those not old enough to receive retirement benefits, you’d be better suited watching Walk Hard on mute with Frankie Valli playing in the background. You’ll get the same effect. But, man, you’re grandma is going to love it.