Film Review: ‘Jersey Boys’

Based on the Tony Award-winning musical, in the racier hands of a David O. Russell or Martin Scorsese, Jersey Boys (2014) could have been a real smash hit. Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood was the mismatched director brought in to adapt the stage play for the big-screen. Or, rather, he doesn’t. This is very much a straight-laced (with the emphasis on “straight”), workmanlike retelling of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ rise and somewhat underwhelming fall, with three of the four stars of the Broadway show shoehorned in to retain some vague sense of continuity. Not that they help what is a largely dull music industry saga, more TV movie than vibrant celebration of American youth culture.

Known and beloved by millions for such sickly sweet, chart-bothering ditties as Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Bye Bye Baby and Who Loves You, the Jersey Boys certainly weren’t handed fame and fortune on a plate. Growing up in the Italian-American Jersey projects, Frankie (John Lloyd Young) and friends Nick Massi (Michael Lomeda) and Tommy DeVito (Boardwalk Empire’s Vincent Piazza) divide their time between petty crime and live performances in local bars and restaurants. Favoured by local mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (a severely mishandled Christopher Walken), their trio becomes a quartet with the addition of hotshot hit machine Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). The Four Seasons’ ascent is monumental, but as Sir Isaac Newton discovered, what goes up must inexorably also come down.

For the first half of its two-hour-plus runtime, Eastwood’s Jersey Boys walks like a movie and talks like a movie, with humour present (if never quite frequent) and performances generally convincing. As perhaps could have been predicted, it’s Piazza who stands out amidst his stage-originating band mates, effectively channelling Boardwalk character Charles “Lucky” Luciano as the domineering Tommy. Ducking and diving from one sticky situation to the next, there’s a broad, comedic feel to these early scenes that would sit far better were it not for the rather troubling handling of ‘key’ female characters (reduced to being either the promiscuous or hard-do-get type, with both “ball-busters”) and, later on, a fleeting – and flouncing – gay music mogul. There are a couple of half-hearted attempts to palm this off as period accuracy, but as cracks start to appear in The Four Seasons juggernaut, a general malaise infiltrates the entire production.

Bounded around as early as 2010 and with Jon Favreau at one point attached to direct, it’s hardly a great surprise to see Jersey Boys finally emerge as a lacklustre, frustratingly inconsistent work of music history sugar-coating. We were told that Eastwood’s take on the Four Seasons story would finally lift the lid on their Mafia collusion; hardly, as even Walken – arguably best-known for his maniacal turns – cameos as one of the cuddliest gangsters this side of the Ant Hill Mob. A sense of danger and/or peril is almost entirely absent, and at no point do we feel that even the wild and unpredictable Tommy is one false move away from feeding the fishes (Scorsese’s long-mooted Frank Sinatra biopic will hopefully scratch that mob-music itch). As we reach the film’s long-overdue finale, the prosthetic ghosts of Eastwood’s similarly unremarkable J. Edgar come back to haunt the American director and his bizarrely aged cast – Valli and co taking to the stage at a Hall of Fame induction looking like extras from 1953’s House of Wax. File under ‘missed opportunity’.

Daniel Green