Like the bubblegum pop music it celebrates, JERSEY BOYS feels like an assembly-line mashup of disparate genres. Consigned to the rote biopic arc of rise-fall-reunion, this screen adaptation of the Tony Award-winning jukebox musical can carry a tune, but it never quite finds the right rhythm.
It’s not that the backstory behind Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons is more compelling than any other rags-to-riches musical success. This film exists because of the popularity of the nearly decade-long stage show. But the notoriously minimal filmmaking style of director Clint Eastwood is ill-suited to the material.
Eastwood’s uninspired approach gradually erodes the musical’s exuberance to a rather humdrum price-of-fame story, and the broad strokes of the stage show that survive— from the fourth-wall-breaking narration to the exaggerated “New Joisey” accents—stand out as rather silly in this context.
The film opens in Belleville, N.J., circa 1951, where pictures of Frank Sinatra share equal prominence with Pope Pius XII on Italian family walls. According to two-bit delinquent Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), there were only three ways out of the neighborhood: the Army, the Mob and crooning.
Although Tommy never relinquishes his gangster connections, his musical prospects skyrocket once he discovers the daedal falsetto of young Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young). Eventually adopting the stage name Frankie Valli, he and Tommy join with Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and the shy but savvy songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) to form The Four Seasons.
Eastwood casts actors from the musical production to fill the three of the four leads (all but Piazza), as well as a number of supporting roles. Unfortunately, their performances don’t quite make the transition from stage to screen, particularly Lomenda and Renée Marino as Frankie’s wife, Mary. Even the lauded Young exudes little charisma—often shot in close-up, he looks like he just swallowed sour milk every time he attempts to convey angst.
The film’s first half is an entertaining romp through The Four Seasons’ rise to stardom, starting in 1962 with a string of number one hits: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.” However, Eastwood uses these and other tunes, such as “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” as narrative deus ex machina (or ex musica, if you like) that arrive just in time to resolve the dreary conflict of the moment.
Some of the strife includes Tommy’s mob debt, Frankie’s broken marriage and a poorly edited sequence where Frankie rescues his runaway daughter Francine, ostensibly upset over her absentee father, only to suddenly detour into a discussion about her previously unmentioned desire to become a singer.
By the end, Jersey Boys devolves into a pageant of bad wigs, even worse old-man makeup and tidy plot resolutions. A closing song-and-dance routine feels like a cruel tease—the filmmakers’ acknowledgement of the frivolity they supplanted with a pedestrian plot, pace and production.