When you look through the history of Clint Eastwood’s directorial projects, the closest thing to Jersey Boys might well be Mystic River. I’m certainly not the first to suggest that the adaptation of the Broadway musical might be a bit of a strange project for Eastwood’s particular talents, but oh man, it’s not a stigma that the finished project does much to shake. That’s not to say Jersey Boys is an abject failure in any way – it’s not – but it’s never anything more than a mediocre film, and one that feels even longer than its 134 minute runtime.
It should be noted by anyone who is looking for a comparison to the Broadway show ought look somewhere else. I haven’t seen the show, and so I can’t comment on how this iteration of Frankie Valli’s story measures up to that one. And make no mistake – this movie may be called Jersey Boys, but it really only cares about one of them. From the get-go, Frankie is the central figure.
So as the movie starts, we see how Frankie’s Mafioso friends and benefactors, like eventual Four Seasons bandmate Tommy (Vincent Piazza) and doting Don Gyp (Christopher Walken), look out for the aww-shucks-wet-behind-the-ears-naively-oblivious Frankie. They’re convinced his voice is what’s going to take him out of the old neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey; one of three ways to get out, according to Tommy, the other two being death by army and death by mob activity. Tommy plays in a band, and eventually brings Frankie on as the lead singer; the two of them and bandmate Nick (Michael Lominda) eventually bring on singer/songwriter/pianist Bob (Erich Bergen), and voila! The Four Seasons are born!
Well, almost. The quartet languishes in semi-obscurity for a while, even after landing a minor recording deal with some guy Frankie apparently used to know from the neighborhood. By the time the Four Seasons actually become the Four Seasons, half the runtime has gone by but it only feels like the end of an all-too-lengthy first act. The movie has a bad habit of treating its action on a very superficial level, an issue compounded by the fact that it uses a House of Cards-esque narration technique that tells the audience a lot in lieu of showing them. It means that very little about Jersey Boys feels either significant or relatable on a personal level. Yes, we know intellectually that the boys are working and fighting for their dreams and that it’s a struggle, but we know it because we’re told directly.
For example, after signing their initial contract, Bob speaks to camera to tell us they failed to read the fine print of their contract and wasted a year singing backup as a result. Why didn’t we get a scene where they realized it was their own doing? There’s even a part later in the film where Frankie reacts negatively to the idea that a paper contract means anything – the only contract that matters is an agreement that the two parties shake on. Likewise, there’s a big emphasis on the group’s need to find their unique “sound,” but we never get scenes of them working to find it – there’s just a bit where they try out a new song Bob’s written and everything finally falls into place. They don’t even sound different, their producer just likes it this time. We’re left wondering if this is music they believe in, music they care about, or if it’s just a way to get famous.
But the worst example comes about two thirds of the way through the film, when it makes the shift from being about the Four Seasons to being about Frankie’s solo career (and yes, this movie seems to bite off way more than it ever had hope of chewing). There’s a major conflict that leads to the band’s breakup, and the film flashes back to show that it has been building for several years. But before the flashback we’re flat-out told that it had been going on for a while, and we’ve already seen the moment it led up to. I was left dumbfounded as to why the readymade interpersonal intrigue wasn’t worked directly into the story of the band’s rise. This is doubly befuddling since that rise seems to take place over a few months, but we soon learn actually occurred over the course of a decade, and any mention of conflict over time could have gone a long way towards improving the timeline. What was missing was a sense of stakes, a sense that there was an arc the characters were moving through together. Instead, the interpersonal conflicts which might have been compelling are cordoned off into a neat little section where they can be dealt with quickly and without much fuss.
This all sounds a bit more directly negative than I actually felt as the movie was playing. In truth, I was just mostly indifferent. The movie lacked energy but never quite stood still. It lacked personality, but had recognizably human characters, at least in a rough manner of speaking. Honestly, the film would have coasted through with a passing grade had it not been so terribly long. After the breakup of the Four Seasons, the movie still has the entirety of Frankie’s solo career to pursue. A bored final act fires through more subplots than it would ever have the time for had it been half again as long, concluding in a tired final sequence with nearly as many false endings as Return of the King.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
Clint Eastwood has managed to make a movie about a singer with a multi-octave range and one of the best falsettos ever into a monotone affair. Nothing about Jersey Boys screams bad, but that much mediocrity begs the question of whether Eastwood’s heart was really in this one. A passive interest can be sustained over the short term, but over the course of more that two hours, Jersey Boys never gives the audience anything to latch onto, and it wears ragged as a result.