On some level it makes sense that Clint Eastwood, the ultimate cool straight white guy, would want to take a crack at directing a movie adaptation of Jersey Boys, the Broadway hit about four cool straight white guys. The grand story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is one that exemplifies the American version of braggadocio, a stirring tale of hard knocks and success against all odds. Plus, guys get to shove each other and say things like, “Fuggedaboutit!”
Despite such inspired source material (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice adapted their Tony-winning show for the big screen), not to mention some of the most recognizably catchy songs in the pop music canon, in Eastwood’s hands this jukebox movie musical is almost entirely off-key.
Valli’s astonishing voice, still regarded as one of the most original sounds in music history, should be the axle on which the entire film pivots. But the sound mixing is almost as choppy as Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach’s curiously erratic editing. Lighting and 50’s-era costumes, all whites and soft browns, practically glow with a high-budget sheen, yet no one seems willing to spend money on the kinds of tricks that make films like Chicago and Dreamgirls work – the all-important montage, for one, is forgotten – so the whole affair appears both amateurish and expensive.
The only performer involved with this movie with any musical theater chops may be John Lloyd Young, who won the 2006 Tony Award for playing Frankie Valli in the original Broadway production. The irony is that he is just not a movie star. His voice shines like a bright bulb when it should shoot like a laser beam, and he’s afraid to turn any nonmusical moment up to 11. Apprehension, fatherly love, raw grief: it all looks pensive on his utterly bland features.
Young is also anything but. He somehow appears both too old for 16 and too baby-faced for 40. To say nothing of the penultimate scene at the 1990 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, in which we are treated to closeups of each of the four singers aged with the kind of makeup Saturday Night Live might use in a sketch about the Four Seasons in an old folks home.
Then there’s the finale. Frankie spins around, young again, and we hear the opening notes to “Who Loves You.” The crowd goes wild. It’s a goosebump-inducing moment and then, abruptly, it’s over. Eastwood cuts to an indulgent curtain call with the whole cast dancing under streetlights to a medley of songs, but it’s too little too late. After two hours of such jarring inconsistencies and missed opportunities, it’s hard not to feel like Eastwood is trolling those of us who actually enjoy cheeky musical numbers.
Providing sporadic camera-delivered narration are the other three Seasons: Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nicky Massi (Michael Lomenda) and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). Piazza has convincing swagger but can’t redeem Tommy’s crookedness in the second half, while Lomenda, as the token quiet bass player, unleashes a tirade late in the proceedings that’s as delightful as it is random. Bergen seems to wander in from some other, possibly more entertaining movie. And Christopher Walken, in a minor father figure role, is an absolute treat, underutilized yet unafraid to chew the scenery.
Renée Marino makes a splash as Frankie’s acid-tongued wife Mary, but she is one of a handful of female characters who drift onscreen now and then. The misogyny that pervades this world and its lens isn’t even pronounced enough to be offensive. Unless you can walk like a man, Eastwood isn’t interested. Marino is relegated to occasional glimpses of life as a lush, raging fabulously against the dissolution of the Valli household. The lady doth protest not enough, methinks.
Brickman and Elice make some attempts to develop Frankie’s teenaged daughter Francine, who runs away from home and complains of fatherly neglect. Their reconciliation plays as a parody of a touching father-daughter scene. “She had a bigger range than me,” says Frankie. Really? If only there were some way for us to hear that in, oh I don’t know, a revealing musical number?
Ultimately the origins of many of Gaudio’s songs could and should provide a backbone to a story that doubles as both jukebox musical and biopic. Take the scene depicting the birth of the band’s second big hit: the fellas are brainstorming in the apartment of their flamboyant producer Bob Crew (Mike Doyle, campy and fun). An old movie playing on the television depicts a man abruptly slapping a beautiful starlet across the face. Tommy of course laughs, “I bet she’s going to cry.” Crew then mutters, “Big girls don’t cry.” What should have been a fascinating and clever reveal of the story behind a number one hit is highjacked by a moment of casual sexism. That kind of jokey male supremacy, even when seen through the glossy veneer of history, doesn’t fly today, Mr. Eastwood.
Yes, white male privilege is the be-all and end-all of the Four Seasons’ story, but is this narrow-minded glorification of it – without any substantive emotional value to back it up – serving any purpose in contemporary culture? Aren’t we tired of overly masculine cliches? And is this sprawling yet insignificant film adaptation worth the price of admission?