by Tony Dayoub
Clint Eastwood, a usually reliable filmmaker, is virtually invisible while directing Jersey Boys, an adaptation of the Broadway musical depicting the rise and ultimate dissolution of the rock/doo-wop icons, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Instead, Eastwood stands aside in deference to the material, a by-the-numbers biopic that would be merely serviceable were it not for the group's memorable music. Thanks to the Internet, though, you can queue up "Rag Doll", "Dawn", "December, 1963", or any other Four Seasons song on iTunes or YouTube any old time. So what's left is a mildly interesting story that isn't unique enough to stand above your typical Lifetime TV movie.
It doesn't help that Eastwood confounds by failing to open up Jersey Boys beyond its stage iteration except for the addition of some choice New Jersey locations. Jersey Boys doesn't leap off the screen so much as feel bound by its nods to its theatrical roots. Eastwood extends the artificiality, opting for symmetry and process shots at key moments in the film, most glaringly during a sequence showing the group worn out by their touring schedule. The actors ostensibly drive cars that are really just mock-up rigs staged in front of a rear-projection of the highway. Throughout the film each of the so-called Seasons breaks the fourth wall, telling their side of the story directly into the camera. And it's the usual tales of backbiting, jealousy, shortsightedness, money problems and philandering.
Fortunately, Jersey Boys' casting is spot-on. Though he bears little resemblance (outside of his height and singing ability) to the real Valli, original Broadway cast member John Lloyd Young shines as the singer. Whatever he lacks in looks, Young makes up for in physicality. In a role whose age spans from 16 through 56, Young believably conveys Valli's growing confidence through his portrayal of the man onstage, starting as a stiff, shy performer who gradually evolves over the course of each turn at the mic into a self-assured, commanding presence. Boardwalk Empire's Vincent Piazza dominates the first half of the movie as Tommy DeVito, the group's manager and founder, who eventually loses control over the group due to his questionable financial dealings. Rounding out the ensemble are two newcomers, Erich Bergen as the Four Season's songwriter, Bob Gaudio, and Michael Lomenda as the group's self-professed Ringo, Nick Massi. Lomenda especially, with his oafish overbite, makes a strong impression even next to standouts like Young and Piazza.
Sadly, though Jersey Boys doesn't entirely whitewash unsavory details like the group's mob influence, the movie feels slanted too favorably in the direction of Valli and Gaudio, who just happen to be executive producers on the film. While little justification is given for DeVito's transgressions against the group or Massi's decision to leave the group at the peak of its success, any self-serving moves by Valli and Gaudio are always explored sufficiently so that viewers don't lose their empathy for the two. Jersey Boys' final moments, an epilogue set at the Four Seasons' 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, feels like a concession to those curious about where the lesser known group members ended up. It's also undone by some of the most awful old-age makeup ever seen on screen, as if the various wigs depicting Valli through the decades prior to that weren't bad enough. Eventually, there's even the movie cast curtain call, another ill-advised callback to the stage musical. Instead of putting a cinematic imprimatur on the piece, Eastwood's directorial choices seem like tired afterthoughts, fueling the schizoid notion that Jersey Boys is a film that still wishes it were onstage.