Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for language throughout.
Running time: 134 minutes.
Two stars out of four.
The Four Seasons’ music was poppy, frothy, infectious. Clint Eastwood’s movies are moody, weighty, elegant. These two artistic instincts wouldn’t seem to be a good fit for each other, and as it turns out, they’re not.
Eastwood’s film version of the hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys,” which tracks the rise and fall and (sort of) rise of the ’60s singing group The Four Seasons, never grabs you the way it should. It’s glossy and entertaining but also safe and conventional. If my father had lived to age 72, he would have loved this movie. This is your target audience.
Eastwood — directing a script from the show’s original writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice — traces the group’s origins and their key performances but never enlightens us as to what drove these men, never infuses the film with much passion.
Frankie Valli, whose otherworldly falsetto provided the foursome with its signature sound, remains a cypher even after two-plus hours on screen. We know he’s talented beyond his years as a teenager singing with his buddies on the sidewalks of blue-collar New Jersey, and we know that his friends urge him to keep honing his gift in hopes that he’ll avoid falling into a life of crime like so many others around him. But what inspires Valli (John Lloyd Young, a Tony-winner for playing the role on Broadway) to persevere through decades of highs and lows remains elusive. Is he just in it for the money? The women? The glory?
Eastwood is a lifelong lover of music and a musician himself, having composed the scores for several of his own films including “Mystic River,””Million Dollar Baby” and “Flags of Our Fathers.” It’s easy to see why he’d want to tell this particular story of struggle and success. But he maintains the stage show’s structure of allowing the band members to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly, with each man sharing his version of what “really” happened, “Rashomon”-style. Rather than serving as a source of intimacy, the device keeps us at arm’s length — and, ironically, doesn’t reveal the characters as fully fleshed-out figures.
Vincent Piazza, as the group’s founder and driving force, Tommy DeVito, is a fascinating wild card at first. Between gigs he does odd jobs for local mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). He’s selfish. He’s a hothead. He’s potentially dangerous. But in time, those qualities subside and he fades into the background. Then there’s goofy bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), who gets little more to do than function as the goofy bassist. But the introduction of straight-laced keyboardist and songwriter Bob Gaudio (a confident and great-looking Erich Bergen) helps put them on their path to pop greatness with hits like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Rag Doll.”
Eastwood shoots these performance as an observer, from a distance, which drains them of some of their energy. “Dreamgirls,” this is not. The production values are impeccable, though, as you’d expect from one of his films. Tom Stern, his longtime cinematographer, desaturates the colors off-stage to create a feeling of nostalgia and really lets them pop on-stage when The Four Seasons are working their magic. Production designer James J. Murakami steeps the settings in period detail. Veteran editor Joel Cox keeps things moving at a decent clip.
But Eastwood and his team of talented behind-the-scenes figures, with their decades of experience and expertise, just can’t get past the cliche-addled script. The egos, the infighting, the power struggles. The groupies, the partying, the money problems. The rise up the charts and all the distractions that come with it — we’ve seen this story told a million times before, and usually in montage form.
But there are bright spots. The magnetic Mike Doyle livens things up as the group’s producer, Bob Crewe. He adds some much-needed tongue-in-cheek humor and finds a fine balance between being an amusing effeminate and a flamboyant, gay caricature. (The sequence in which he’s introduced in a fluid pan up New York’s famous Brill Building is a dazzler.)
Renee Marino, as Valli’s first wife, Mary, is a commanding presence when he — and we — first meet her. Snappy and sexy as hell, her opening scene is a doozy. But the swaggering, tough-talking woman eventually becomes a stereotypically bitter, neglected, pill-popping shrew. It seems like a missed opportunity for such a charismatic actress. Similarly, Valli’s relationship with his eldest daughter, Francine, is awkwardly drawn; she’s largely absent, and then out of nowhere we’re told she’s a talented singer in her own right, which is meant to serve as a poignant connection between them.
Walken is reliably Walkenesque as the local gangster who controls their fate — dryly, oddly charming but also a bit fearsome. It’s a huge waste, though, that in the big production number of “December, 1963” with all the cast members at the end — Eastwood’s recreation of the curtain call — the famously gifted hoofer is relegated to the sidelines. You’re waiting for the big, Walken solo and it never comes.
It’s tough to tell this kind of tale in an innovative way. The music biopic in the vein of “Ray” or “Walk the Line” is a genre with such obvious and repeated tropes that it’s already been a source of parody. Jake Kasdan’s “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” perfectly replicated the way these stories tend to go, from humble roots to stratospheric stardom to an equally spectacular drop, with plenty of egos, drugs, booze and women to complicate the mix.
There’s a scene in “Walk Hard” in which Dewey (John C. Reilly) and the bandmates he barely knows break into the song that would become his signature out of nowhere in the studio, intuitively adding harmonies and bass and piano lines. It’s hilarious because it’s so false. “Jersey Boys” has a similar moment that’s played with dead seriousness, when Gaudio auditions for the three other group members and they all click intuitively, impossibly, as he plays “Cry For Me” for the first time. The cliche has come full-circle onto itself.