Clint Eastwood’s career as a director has always been impressive for the variety of material he chooses, as well as the success rate of his efforts and the risks he takes. Sometimes his risky choices result in surprise masterpieces, like Letters from Iwo Jima, Unforgiven and his directorial debut, Play Misty For Me. His latest effort is another unlikely choice for the former Man With No Name and it falls alongside White Hunter, Black Heart and J. Edgar as an ambitious but underwhelming film that fails to match the electrifying potential of its subject matter.
Eastwood gravitates towards making films that are offbeat, unique and certainly unexpected; he shares this quality with the late John Huston, whose later films were also hit and miss but often displayed a fearless, lets-see-if-this-works, gung-ho spirit to filmmaking. Eastwood’s style is subdued, to say the least, but even his lesser films show an older but still crackling master filmmaker willing to take a real chance.
Jersey Boys is based on the wildly popular Broadway musical, based on the life of Frankie Valli, whose catalog of hit songs make this one of those musicals where everyone knows the songs before they walk into the theater.
Remaining extremely faithful to the stage musical, the story shows Frankie Valli’s rise from obscurity to national attention, as his group, The Four Seasons, ride a wave of popularity from three number one hits. Their Achilles heel is Tommy DeVito, a self-destructive group member whose behavior seems both a cry for help and an effort to sabotage everyone else’s hard efforts.
The characters frequently break the fourth wall, talking right to the camera; this worked fine on stage, when the audience was happy to accept exposition while a scene was unfolding. In this movie, the talking-to-the-audience approach never feels anything but distracting.
The reliably classy, professional efforts of the director and his production are strangely hit and miss. There’s a knockout moment where Valli enters a building in search of recording space and representation: the camera travels, in an unbroken shot, with Valli up a dozen stories outside the building. Yet, much of the film has an ugly, washed out look, as though filmed on an overcast day.
Early jokes about the story’s inclusion of Joe Pesci (who doesn’t play himself) feel dialed down, as though Eastwood feared going all the way making an in-joke. Yet, he doesn’t shy away from showing himself in an old Rawhide clip, nor allowing co-star Christopher Walken to cut up in ways that are typically quirky.
Even with the great music and a second act that gathers some momentum, most of this is rather dull. John Lloyd Young makes a soulful Valli, but the other actors give highly mannered portrayals, coming off like Goodfellas impersonators. On stage, the stereotypes were appropriately big but blown up onto a movie screen, it comes off like a stream of badda-bing-badda-bang, New Joisy clichés.
Rock of Ages, another recent Broadway musical turned movie with a jukebox-ready soundtrack, was also uneven but at least had a couple of knockout musical numbers. Here, the soundtrack trumps the presentation, with even That Thing You Do! providing a lighter, quick-footed and better take on this familiar material. The big “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” number should soar but strangely doesn’t (I blame the overzealous orchestral accompaniment). There are multiple endings, intended as a tribute to the film’s stage origins, that come across like indecision in how to properly end the movie.
Fans of the stage show and Valli may walk away happy, as this isn’t a bad film. It’s wildly out of step with the rest of the summer movie offerings, coming across like a counter-programming anomaly in a sea of CGI explosion fests. Yet, as a fan of the stage musical (which I recently saw in Las Vegas), as well as Eastwood, this comes up short and should have been sensational.