Whatever Clint Eastwood is up to these days, it’s hard to deny that his recent track record has been shaky. Gran Torino was good and Invictus was fairly well-received, but Hereafter got mixed reviews at best, and J. Edgar was a mess, with a few strong scenes undermined by a clumsy script and some of the worst old-age makeup on record. Sadly, Jersey Boys isn’t much better, and as good as the Four Seasons’ vintage songs are, they can’t hide how bad the writing is, and as skilled as Eastwood is, he doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table.
The story of the Four Seasons, as related here, apparently has little to do with history, and is a chronological trainwreck in any case, so I’ll keep things general. In 1951 Belleville, New Jersey, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), is a musician and small-time criminal, working for Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). Tommy has been nurturing the singing talent of young Frankie Castelluccio (soon to become Valli; John Lloyd Young), and despite some hiccups along way (involving the law), a group called the Four Lovers is formed, including Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). Ultimately, they get an in with record producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), and rename themselves the Four Seasons (after a bowling alley, of all things).
Crewe relegates them to singing backup for other artists, claiming that Gaudio’s tunes are not unique enough to become hits. Finally, he comes up with “Sherry”, which proves to be a huge hit, and the band becomes a national sensation. Complications come, in the form of Frankie’s troubled marriage to Mary (Renée Marino), Bob’s desire to craft a side career for himself and Frankie, and Tommy’s reckless behavior, which includes incurring several hundred thousand dollars worth of debt with the Mafia.
I don’t even want to touch the story. It’s such an ungodly mess. After the film tells us it begins in 1951, what seems like a a couple of years at most pass before someone mentions The Blob (which came out in 1958); I assumed it was just sloppiness until I read up on the Seasons and realized they didn’t even settle on their name until 1960, so…maybe seven years had passed? I really don’t know. The film also makes a plot point out of the accidental death of Valli’s daughter, Francine; in reality, this occurred in 1980, but the film (going by the fashions she wears) suggests it happened c. 1970, and Gaudio helped Valli pull through his grief by writing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”–but the song was actually released in 1967.
I don’t want to sound pedantic and suggest that historical fidelity is all that matters, but the film is such a mess that I can’t overlook it. Here’s a Slate article which delves a little more into the question of the film’s accuracy and suggests that it was actually relatively true to the facts (all things considered), but the fact remains that the film is a narrative mess, providing little indication of the passage of time, other than changing fashions and hairstyles. It left me confounded, and if you were never so bemused by it, count yourself lucky.
On top of the structural issues, the script is plagued by stereotypes and clichés. There’s Jersey-Italian stereotypes (Tommy and Mary are the worst offenders), gay stereotypes (maybe the film accurately depicts Bob Crewe, but Doyle’s performance seemed awfully self-consciously camp at times), drunken-showbiz-wife-accusing-her-husband-“you’re never there for your family” stereotypes (Mary again), dirty-hippie stereotypes (Francine hangs around with an unsavory individual who is never specifically identified), and, of course, plenty of moon-eyed groupies.
And the clichés and cutesy moments are plentiful, and for every one that may, in fact, be true (the source of the Four Seasons’ name), there are others which clearly aren’t (the song “Big Girls Don’t Cry” was indeed inspired by a movie, but ironically, the true story of its inception is far less convoluted than the story the film offers us. When a film can’t even bullshit coherently, you know something’s wrong. It’s really depressing to realize that co-writer Marshall Brickman once co-wrote Annie Hall (the other writer, Rick Elice, has done relatively little). “From White House to Shite House” indeed.
And that’s not even mentioning the parts that are just boring; a climactic scene where the group unravels as a solution to Tommy’s debts is sought goes on for far too long, is quite dull, and requires Frankie to essentially pull a 180 which makes him look selfless and grateful–and did I mention that Frankie Valli was an executive producer on this? It’s really obvious, too. He’s such a golden boy here, to the point where it’s just ridiculous. But yes, at 135 minutes, Jersey Boys is too much of a mediocre thing.
While we’re at it, should I mention Eastwood’s direction? There’s not much to say about it; he doesn’t disgrace himself, but he doesn’t remotely distinguish himself either. The pacing is uneven, the editing is at times rather choppy, and as a whole the film never really catches fire. It’s just kind of there. The muted cinematography is fine, the period detail is solid, and the sound mixing (always vital for a musical) is excellent, but for the most part, it’s merely adequate.
I’ve bitched about this film so much, you might wonder how it got to **½. That’s mostly due to the strength of the songs and the solidity of the acting.
The songs have been beloved for decades, and certainly I can say nothing about them which hasn’t been said by other, more musically knowledgable commentators. Suffice to say, the Four Seasons made some great music, and it’s performed well here.
As for the acting, it’s mostly good. John Lloyd Young (who’s played Frankie on stage for some time) is generally pretty good, given the limitations of the role, but his facial expressions whilst singing suggest constipation or some other internal distress. I have no idea if that’s what Frankie Valli looks like when he sings, but Young looks a bit absurd. He sings well, though, and plays the non-musical sequences about as well as they can be played. Vincent Piazza’s Tommy also brings some life to the proceedings; he’s a bit broad, and the script doesn’t do him many favors, but he’s fine.
It’s the two lower-key members of the band who really give the film a foundation. Erich Bergen’s affable, slightly nerdy Bob Gaudio is quite likable, enough so that his attitude at the end (expressing an indifference to the cult of one’s neighborhood, and unabashedly recognizing his part in the band’s success) is quite understandable (which may not have been quite what the film intended). And as Nick Massi, Michael Lomenda sings well and gives a fine portrait of, essentially, an Average Joe, who ultimately chooses his family over celebrity. Gaudio and Massi are easily the most likable characters in the film, far more than the saintly Valli or the arrogant DeVito. Does this reflect reality? I have no idea. I just know what’s on the screen.
The rest of the cast is uneven, but generally decent: despite the conception of the character, Mike Doyle keeps Bob Crewe from descending too much into stereotype, and Walken is always good to see–though considering his tour-de-force in Pennies from Heaven, any musical which casts him and gives him no chance to sing and dance already has a strike against it in my book. Renée Marino can’t do a whole lot with Mary Valli, given how terribly written her role is, but she could’ve been worse. I suppose Joey Russo’s portrayal of Joe Pesci (yes, GoodFellas Joe Pesci–whose character in that film was coincidentally named Tommy DeVito) was enjoyable. I think that’s about it.
(^I’m just saying.)
As much as I’ve groused about Jersey Boys, it’s really not that bad. It’s just…why would you ever really want to watch this? What advantage could this possibly give you over just listening to the actual Four Seasons (or, if you must, listening to the Broadway cast recording)? It’s pretty worthless as history, it’s not all that worthwhile as entertainment, and it’s no one’s finest hour. At the very least, seek out a performance of the stage show instead. If you must watch the film, though, make sure wherever you see it has a decent sound system, since the sound mixing is easily the best part of it.