Officially, Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys is — like the 2005 Broadway musical it’s adapted from — about the rise and mild sputter of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. But come on! In the opening shot, one of the Seasons (let’s call him Monsoon) strolls in front of the camera — his hair done in an airy side sweep, his accent fragrant with Eye-talian “oozes”and “aws” — and starts tawkin’ta us as he crosses a street in 1951 Belleville, New Jersey. It happens over and over in this movie. Someone needs to stop what he’s doing in order to turn to the camera and set the scene or explain the times or, in that accent, say something like, “I’ll give Tommy this: The guy knew how to throw a party.” Every time it happened, I kind of laughed. Oh, and a handful of scenes feature a little fixer named Joe Pesci — not the actor, that’s the character’s name — who asks someone, “Funny how?” At some point, Frankie comes home from the road to a screaming match with his drunk, fed-up wife, Mary. Eastwood keeps trying to do Goodfellas and winds up at Olive Garden.
This is basically the story of how two-bit gangsters found success as a big 1960s pop act. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) is the guy who struts first onto the screen. He’s the charismatically one-dimensional, “You want a fucking smack?” kind of bully that made Andrew Dice Clay possible. But the movie lets you think this is what all young working-class Italians did in the ’50s: heave giant safes into car trunks. Tommy and his buddy Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) concoct other small-time schemes that get them six months here and six months there. But they manage to keep their lookout, Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young), from going to prison. He’s little and sings with them in a band. While being carted off by a cop, Nick turns to Frankie and reminds him to keep working on his voice, which can rocket up to a falsetto’s siren.
On their first date, Mary (Renée Marino) tells Frankie that if he’s going to change his last name, he should keep it Italianish. So the moniker he was using, Frankie Valley, becomes Valli. And thanks to a chance encounter with a freshly repaired neon sign, the onetime Four Lovers become the Four Seasons. Courtesy of Pesci (Joey Russo) — whose namesake was called Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, for what it’s worth — Frankie, Tommy, and Nick find Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a long, wry, WASP-y talent. Gaudio becomes the fourth member and cowrites the group’s hits, a lot them with producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), who’s presented here as a canny, swishy Jersey queen with Park Avenue tastes. There’s an outlandish scene in which everyone sits around Crewe’s enormous apartment watching Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. When Kirk Douglas slaps Jan Sterling, Tommy says, “I betcha she cries.” Crewe, mesmerized by the television, replies, “No, no. Big girls don’t cry.” And Gaudio turns to Crewe, with creative disbelief in his eyes. I suppose these movies need a “How’d they come up with that hit?” scene. I generally don’t like them. But this one I liked.
Some of this movie creaks. Some of it, like that Ace in the Hole scene, is goodish. None of it’s as embarrassing as it ought to be, given the incongruity of genre and director. But this isn’t a pure musical, which makes it easier for Eastwood to handle production numbers; they happen either on a stage or in a studio. Some of the risk is in building a film around actors who haven’t made many movies. But the men playing the Seasons are veterans of their respective parts, having played them in different productions. Young starred in the original Broadway version (he won a Tony in 2006), and he’s not a show-off. In the film, his version of Valli seems casually in awe of his own voice. That night that Nick goes to jail, he, Frankie, and a woman they’re friends with break into a church to rehearse, and when Frankie starts to sing, it’s the acoustics that make Young’s eyes light up. It’s a nice, tiny moment.
Occasionally, when they’re required to be quiet or still, the actors recede. But each of them has something — even Piazza, who’s stuck with an obnoxious macho part, and especially Bergen, who does all of his scenes with something like a boyish wink. He seems most at ease with the close-ups.
Valli and Gaudio are executive producers, so you get why the movie version of Bob is so genially cunning. Tommy’s gambling and general self-destruction make Frankie seem angelically altruistic and Bob right about everything. Poor Nick should slip through the cracks of Tommy and Frankie’s drama, but Lomenda is too strapping to slip through anything. He uses a thick, galoot accent that implies dumbness. Lomenda, though, is playing years of frustration. As the group falls apart, Nick explains his MO during all that time on the road, and it’s so depressing that it recharacterizes the rest of the movie. What did anybody have to sing about?
Jersey Boys skates along the surface of stories of guilt and pathology. It tiptoes around Frankie’s adultery (we never see him cheat, but Mary knows) and absentee parenting in order to make him all but a saint. Toward the end, he’s singing for other people’s suppers. And the movie can’t bring itself to find tragedy in that, either. Valli and the Four Seasons’ story might well have been true, but as drama, it’s thin and occasionally dull. And because this is a so-called jukebox musical, a movie audience doesn’t have the spectacle of a production number to look forward to. The soundstage number Eastwood throws in for the closing credits to 1975’s “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” makes you wonder whether a bullet was dodged.
That’s a frill, and apart from a few expertly done facial contortions by Christopher Walken, as the classy neighborhood mob boss, there are few others. The movie’s been given the same grim look as most of Eastwood’s from the last dozen years. This is how Eastwood approaches the past, as memories with faded-out color. The movie is too hard-nosed for nostalgic fun. Or maybe this is as fun or as nostalgic as Eastwood allows himself to get. Regardless, it’s touching in a way. A movie-star director who’s built a career around a growling, minimalist approach to life (and speaking) has devoted a film to a man who sounds as if Dirty Harry kicked him in the nuts. (Young’s falsetto doesn’t pierce the way Valli’s did. It’s been more than 50 years and still it’s an alarming note.)
Eastwood isn’t the first great American director to hit his head on a musical wall. Robert Altman made Popeye. John Huston made Annie. And Jersey Boys isn’t a movie that leaves you with the sense that Valli meant to Eastwood what, say, Charlie Parker did. Eastwood made Bird almost 26 years ago, when he was 58. The film didn’t work, but the atmosphere of jazz had gotten to him. He tried to get inside the music, the drug addiction, and Parker — too opaque a genius for easy entry — kindly spit Eastwood out. The movie was full of clichés, but you watch it convinced the man who made it had no idea that they were. As a director, it all seemed new to him — the stage sweats, the night sweats — and it both charged up his filmmaking and mellowed it out.
Jersey Boys lacks the immediacy of a live show. It’s not just the funereal look. The doo-wop of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t present the chance for a cinematic jolt the way rock and roll or rap might. It doesn’t for Eastwood, anyway. I think mid-Atlantic Italian American culture fascinates him. It’s as captivating to him as the music, maybe more. He likes the accents and admires the hot-bloodedness and loyalty. He admires Martin Scorsese, who came from the opposite end of the country and makes the opposite kind of films. There’s a respect paid here that you can sense. It’s not nostalgia so much as attempted wish fulfillment. Eastwood might have gone to bed with Goodfellas, but he woke up with Dreamgirls.