JERSEY BOYS

Jersey Boys

JERSEY BOYS  * *

Starring John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda and Christopher Walken. Screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Nick Elice. Directed by Clint Eastwood.

The damnedest picture playing to empty theatres right now, Clint Eastwood’s out-of-tune adaptation of the smash jukebox musical is an almost spellbindingly disharmonious experience. Jersey Boys is a gimcrack Broadway sugar-rush single slowed down to 33 1/3 RPM and slathered with mournful shadows and Eastwood-ian regret. Just about every directorial choice here is so clankingly at odds with the material being presented that –as the song goes– I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It’s like watching Ingmar Bergman’s Grease.

Chronicling the rags-to-riches tale of four goombahs from the mean streets of Belleville who grew up to be Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jersey Boys imports three of its main cast members from the stage production and hews to a fiercely loyal screenplay by the show’s writers Marshall Brickman and Nick Elice. Their script is chock full of phony a-ha moments — like stray lines of dialogue instantly inspiring classic songs, or the band choosing their name when a neon bowling alley sign (literally) lights up over their heads.

Such good-natured silliness probably plays like gangbusters for Times Square tourists of a certain age willing to overlook a barrage of fuck-words between bubblegum pop ditties, but Eastwood doesn’t seem much interested in making a Broadway musical. The movie has been shot on obvious soundstages with the cast giving broad turns pitched to the back rows, and yet Clint stubbornly refuses to embrace the artifice. His visuals are murky and the mood meditative. Song performances remain tethered to their studio settings; nothing ever takes flight, as if the director is intentionally trying to drag Jersey Boys down to Earth. Why he would want to do that is the question that lingers.

Of course Clint Eastwood has spent his entire career interrogating and deconstructing American mythologies, and initially the structure of Jersey Boys – in which band members take turns addressing the audience, each telling his own side of the story – suggests an inquiry along the lines of his recent Flags of Our Fathers or Invictus. In those (admirable but not entirely successful) films, Eastwood presented history a la the old Deadwood line, as “a lie agreed upon,” coming around to a grudging respect for “printing the legend” as a necessary evil.

But I’m still not sure why four hoods who can sing like Alvin and the Chipmunks merit a similar approach, and it turns out not to matter anyway because Jersey Boys abruptly gives up on the Rashomon gimmick about two thirds of the way through, before Valli even has a chance to speak his piece. John Lloyd Young may have won a Tony for playing Frankie on Broadway, but on film the screen swallows him up. He’s got the voice but no presence, upstaged by his sidekicks, and later, his sideburns.

Of the performers, Vincent Piazza fares the best as hotheaded Tommy DeVito, namesake and role model for the psychopathic fireplug Joe Pesci portrayed in GoodFellas. (A childhood friend of the band, Pesci is played here by a young actor rather annoyingly spouting catch-phrases from Scorsese’s picture and from Lethal Weapon 2, just in case we didn’t get that he’s supposed to be Joe Pesci.)

Notably the only one of the Four Seasons not culled from the Broadway cast, Piazza brings a confrontational aggression to DeVito that the rest of these eager-to-please, jazz-handsy performances can’t come near. The man blows his nose into hotel towels as if to the manner born, and whatever rude energy Jersey Boys had going for it dissipates altogether when he storms out of the movie.

Christopher Walken hovers around the margins here and there looking vaguely bemused as a kindly Mafioso with a soft part for four-part harmonies, but the best Special Guest Star appearance belongs to the director himself. When goofy, virginal songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) is about to be deflowered by a lady of the night, he’s got the TV on, watching Rawhide. Hitchcock couldn’t top that cameo.

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