'Jersey Boys' Loses Charm On-Screen

by Andrew Kingsley | 6/30/14 5:13pm

Cinematic adaptations of musicals face an inherent problem. Musicals are both more alive, and more importantly, theatrical than film, which creates a surreal universe in which flashy, spontaneous song-and-dance routines are permitted and logical. For this to hold true, audiences must immediately suspend their disbelief, permitting their over-the-top dramatic elements.

Film as a medium inherently lacks these forgiving expectations. Movies are not so overtly a capital-P production; there are no set changes or exaggerated acting so the cheap seats can see. So how does a filmmaker infuse his film with the same liveliness and grandeur of the original musical while restraining its theatricality? That is the issue that Clint Eastwood failed to resolve in his 2014 adaptation of “Jersey Boys.”

The film, and the original 2005 musical, chronicles the formation, rise and eventual collapse of the 1960s band The Four Seasons, whose hits include “Sherry,” “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Led by Frankie Valli and his iconic powerful voice, the band was one of the most popular Baby Boomer groups before The Beatles.

Eastwood remains faithful to the Broadway version and includes all the instantly recognizable even to Generations X, Y and, I hope, Z hits. Although many songs are shot in a near documentary, anti-musical style, they provide the basic framework for the plot, told in chronological vignettes from different members’ perspectives.

Yet the polyphony of voices drowns out the interior fracturing of the quartet, which is the film’s greatest strength. The childhood friendship between Valli and his lead guitarist, Tommy DeVito, complicate the financial and emotional turmoil between the two, which ultimately dissolves the band.

Valli opens the film by saying there were three ways out of the meat grinder of the New Jersey working class: join the army, join the mob or get famous. DeVito discovers Valli’s voice and makes him a star. Valli’s staunch loyalty and sacrifice for the man who discovered his talent is as startling as it is complex, unearthing a level of camaraderie foreign to most. As their monetary debt accumulates bombshell by bombshell from DeVito’s transactions with a loan shark, Valli remains unflinchingly supportive. In New Jersey in the 1960s, friendship is not a Facebook request — it means something.

Their unraveling, thrown into powerful relief against their usually lively music from the irrepressible debut of “Sherry” to Valli’s solitary, eulogistic “Fallen Angel,” deserves an even bigger spotlight. Eastwood wastes too much time on Valli’s family tensions, whose overly melodramatic notes of divorce and neglected children worthy of a Sarah McLachlan commercial provide an uninspired narrative crutch in what could have been a much more subtle film.

The scope is too grand, suffering like the 2007 Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en Rose” from attempting to capture the arc of a superstar. Contrast these two plots with Tom Hooper’s 2012 “Les Misérables,” the cinematic reworking of the 1980 play. It condenses 17 years of French history into 158 minutes by interweaving several stories of love and suffering that provides an engrossing, moving depth. “Jersey Boys,” however, spreads itself too thin. The decision to film everything from the musical dilutes the emotional focus and inundates the viewer with a whirlwind of curt episodes outlined by matter-of-fact musical numbers.

The fragile musical skeleton also lacks the muscle to drive the film forward, and the scenes between songs atrophy with empty dialogue. For example, as the fledgling trio is accepting Bob Gaudio, the band’s eventual songwriter, the cast debate endlessly, creating the cinematic equivalent of an indecisive drive-thru patron. The number of interactions that simply end in trading profanities would make even the film’s drunk nun cringe. Yes, there is a drunk nun.

Mudslinging dulls any emotional impact of these fights. Viewers become numb to their sting, and these scenes lose their solemnity and urgency. Take the swearing and gangster feel from “Goodfellas” (1990) or even Eastwood’s own“Gran Torino” (2008), remove the bite, throw in some snappy music and you have “Jersey Boys.”

I expected more out of the creator of “Mystic River” (2003) and “Dirty Harry” (1971), and this film was not up to par. “Jersey Boys” only continues Eastwood’s slide, beginning with “J. Edgar” (2011), and continued to “Trouble With the Curve” (2012). Most recently, Eastwood talked to a chair. Eastwood has had the safety on his gun for five years, and hopefully his upcoming film, “American Sniper,” will not be so half-cocked.

 

Rating: 6.8/10

‘Jersey Boys’ is playing daily at the Nugget at 1:30 p.m., 4:00 p.m., 6:40 p.m. and 9:10 p.m.