‘Jersey Boys’… Fuhgettaboutit

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Jersey Boys

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice

USA, 2014

You know something has gone horribly wrong when the best scene in your movie is a production number featured in the closing credits.  Sadly, no one noticed that the rest of Jersey Boys was bereft of any dramatic conflict, interesting characters or compelling themes.  Clint Eastwood brings an intriguing visual style, but the clunky script and overwrought family drama render this collection of timeless classics about as nuanced as white noise.

Even if Frankie Valli’s voice makes you cringe, there’s no escaping the impact his band, The Four Seasons, had on popular music in the 1960’s.  Having sold an estimated 100 million records over the last 6 decades, it was inevitable that Hollywood would tell their story one day.  It was a chance for older audiences to relive the songs of their youth and, perhaps, share them with their own kids.  More importantly, there was a solid foundation upon which to build a compelling story; childhood friends form a band, get famous, implode and then re-emerge stronger than ever.  It’s a familiar story, but if properly interwoven with some classic tunes it could provide fresh insight into an iconic American band.  Unfortunately, Jersey Boys is content to re-hash the same tired clichés, amounting to a dramatic re-enactment of every Behind the Music television episode ever filmed.

Things start out like a hybrid between Goodfellas and Good Will Hunting.  Characters talk directly to the camera as they navigate the “mean streets” of Frankie’s hometown in New Jersey.  There are mobsters and wiseguys hanging out at the barber shop, all packing a quick wit and a loaded pistol.  And they all love Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young).  They know his angelic voice will carry him from the depths of poverty to the bright lights of stardom.  They watch out for; protect him.  When things go sideways and Frankie gets snagged by the cops, his friends are more than happy to take the wrap for him.

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Just how mean these streets are is open to debate.  The only crime we see out of Frankie is when he attempts to steal a safe that’s bigger than his car (a major accomplishment considering the size of cars in those days).  The scene is played so broadly for comic relief that it undermines any sense of urgency for Frankie to escape the neighborhood.  Even after a bloody assassination in Frankie’s car, it’s quickly revealed to be an extortion scam by a couple of wacky gangsters.  It’s as if the filmmakers are trying to keep things light while still pushing heavier themes about the allure of fast cash and faster women.  This makes the first act feel unfocused, uninvolving and, ultimately, uninteresting.

The primary relationship that shapes the film is between Valli and his best friend, Tommy (Vincent Piazza).  Tommy is a slick customer who appoints himself the band’s manager.  Mainly, this gives him license to boss people around and scam the ladies.  Most of the early narration is delivered by Piazza and provides some of the film’s funnier moments.  Indeed, in a cast that barely passes as workmanlike, Piazza is the standout.  To be fair, the actors aren’t given much to work with here; they’re more caricatures than characters.  None of these characters have any depth or life beyond the screen.  The guys are mostly dimwitted and the women exist only to punish them and be hysterical whenever the script requires it.  Even the great Christopher Walken seems bored with his stock gangster role.  Basically, we’ve seen all of these characters before and in much better movies.

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Adapted from their own book (the basis of the Tony Award winning musical), co-writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s listless script defiantly ignores any cinematic conventions beyond melodrama.  This form of musical, so reliant upon stage performances, is already prone to dramatic lulls where nothing is happening.  Similar to car chases or fist fights in action movies, when the actors start singing the story stops moving.  To function on a cinematic level, the stage performance must be the punctuation mark for the dramatic conflict that precedes it.  Because Jersey Boys never generates any dramatic momentum, the songs are little more than interpretive re-enactments.  What we’re left with is a glorified greatest hits album interspersed with some melodramatic vignettes.

The biggest problem with the script, however, is the lack of narrative focus that results from constantly shifting perspectives.  We aren’t ever sure who the main character is.  Frankie is largely ignored until later in the film, when his troubled family life finally takes center stage.  Of course, since we know so little about him, this family drama is unconvincing and often cringe-worthy.  Tommy seems to be the lead character in the film’s opening half, but he disappears right at the apex of his storyline, when his fate seems most perilously.  Again, the filmmakers defuse conflict and tension whenever possible, even if it means juggling main characters and creating confusion for the audience.

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Despite the shambles of a story, director, Clint Eastwood, establishes a strong visual identity for this world.  The black and white opening, set in the 50’s, yields to the muted color palette of the 60’s before finally exploding into a garish rainbow for the 70’s.  The set design feels authentic, and his staging of the musical performances reeks of cigarette smoke (which is a good thing).  He uses actors from the original theater production to actually perform the songs live, which lends a realism often missing from obviously lip-synced musicals.  Though the themes are tired and uninspiring, Eastwood still does a nice job conveying the importance of loyalty to community and friendship, even when those bonds threaten to destroy our personal dreams.

Where Eastwood struggles, however, is with pacing.  Particularly, how haphazardly the musical numbers are distributed.  The first half of the film is largely devoid of recognizable tunes, which will disappoint Valli fans looking for insight into his creative process and particular musical genius.  A delightful scene where Valli and a buddy harmonize inside a spacious church—their voices beautifully colliding and harmonizing—is cut so criminally short that it will only serve to tantalize fans with what could have been.  When the songs finally arrive in the film’s second half, it’s like a non-stop cavalcade of hits.  Again, with no dramatic subtext to payoff, this barrage of songs just feels gratuitous and unrewarding.

You can see what the filmmakers were trying to do with Jersey Boys.  They wanted to capture the spirit of a simpler time; the wholesomeness of a sound borne, ironically, from a violent and desolate place.  In those brief moments when the performers, songs and narrative seamlessly blend together, like an impromptu jam session around the piano or an infectious song-and-dance number beneath the end credits, this film hints at greater heights.  Unfortunately, those moments can’t sustain what is an otherwise disappointing effort.  Wafer-thin characters and structural missteps prove that no matter how great the story, the true quality lies in the telling.

J.R. Kinnard

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