There’s nostalgia and there’s being old-fashioned. One charmingly recreates outdated culture from the past, while the other feels like it’s been sitting on ice for decades and should have remained there. ‘Jersey Boys’ has one of these qualities, and not the good one.
As a stage musical, ‘Jersey Boys’ is a worldwide hit of the jukebox variety. Chances are that audiences will all have heard of it by the time they slide into the movie, Even if not, the stage origin is clear almost instantly. The movie makes a slight attempt to open the story up, but mostly that just involves spreading out dialogue scenes over a few locations. Beyond that, the movie feels remarkably stagy, with characters directly addressing the audience at random intervals with little purpose. The entire journey comes off as a small story in small rooms with only a handful of people at a time. In an era when his career has been defined by halfhearted efforts, this might be director Clint Eastwood’s laziest project to date.
The story, of course, is about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It opens in a plastic version of Brooklyn where everybody says “Fogetaboutit!” and eats heaping bowls of pasta while worshiping Sinatra, along with dozens of other Italian-American clichés that might even make the Mario Bros. blush from the gentle racism. Tommy (Vincent Piazza) starts the band and quickly finds the high-pitched, pop single shifting voice of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) to front his act. Though the humor is as broad as humanly possible, these sequences have a certain amount of charm and camp appeal as a band forms in between idiotic small crimes. (The funniest jokes involve how friends constantly pass each other with a smile and hello while entering in and out of prison.)
Then fame hits. The band’s big hits (“Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” etc.) get stirring renditions, and the movie turns into a big, glossy episode of ‘Behind the Music’. Tommy’s gambling debts tears apart the band. Frankie Valli plays sad aging rocker gigs and goes through the death of a daughter (which makes little impact since she appears on-screen so fleetingly that’s it’s clear she’s there only to do die from her first scene). Eventually, they all reunite for a retirement gig that proves, even after all of the flack he received for ‘J. Edgar‘, that Eastwood is committed to lowering the standards for old age makeup in Hollywood to laughably awful standards.
The film is so outwardly pleasant and desperate to please audiences that it’s hard to outright hate. The trouble is that, despite all of the big, broad and impossible-to-ignore signals that the movie is supposed to be FUN and MOVING, none of that ever registers. Partly, that’s due to the cast, which aside from the ringer Christopher Walken who shows up to play a local gangster, was cast more for their singing voices or vague resemblance to the real people than acting ability. Performances are pitched loud enough to reach the back of a Broadway theater, and that sort of acting never works well on film. The script might have been reformatted to look like a screenplay, but was never really adapted to suit the new medium.
Much of the blame for the project has to fall onto the shoulders of director Clint Eastwood. Though he’s certainly made some fine films behind the camera over the course of his career (particularly ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales‘ and ‘Unforgiven‘), his work over the last decade or so has been over-praised. Eastwood has always been more of an efficient filmmaker than one with a particularly original or personal voice. As the years have gone by, his movies feel increasingly like they were made by someone more interested in finishing a day’s work on time than someone passionate about the story he’s telling. ‘Jersey Boys’ suffers from this lackadaisical directing approach more than just about any other movie he’s made recently. The broad style of the screenplay should have been played up by the style of the film to highlight its artificiality and humor, but instead Eastwood plays it all straight. More often than not, the film just feels lazy and flat when it should feel bright and brash.
The biggest sin is that the movie is just deeply dull, one quality that never described the musical and shouldn’t have been a problem here. Perhaps the target audience for the movie (largely people in Eastwood’s age group) won’t mind, simply because they get to hear songs they remember, are clearly signaled how to feel at any given moment, and get to have the illusion of watching some rowdy humor without anything approaching offensiveness. It’s a movie as pleasant, empty and forgettable as an afternoon nap, and is perhaps best suited for viewers for whom naptime is a vital and important part of the day.