Friday, June 20, 2014

In Theaters: JERSEY BOYS (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Cast: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken, Mike Doyle, Kathrine Narducci, Renee Marino, Freya Tingley, Steven J. Schirripa, Erica Piccininni, Joseph Russo, Donnie Kehr, Lou Volpe, Elizabeth Hunter. (R, 134 mins)

JERSEY BOYS, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, became a Broadway phenomenon in 2005, going on to win the Tony for Best Musical and Best Lead Actor for John Lloyd Young as Valli. Young recreates the role for Clint Eastwood's big-screen version, which is not quite the adaptation that fans of the original musical or its many touring permutations might be expecting. The Broadway production, with a book by 1970s Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman (ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN) and Rick Elice, was anchored by a "Rashomon structure," which told the group's story from the vastly different POV of the four members, each under the guise of spring, summer, winter, and fall to make up the Four Seasons, supported and propelled by the group's songs. It all tied in together nicely, but Eastwood, working from a script by Brickman and Elice, almost completely abandons that concept other than occasional fourth-wall-breaking comments, but mainly, the focus is whittled down to just Frankie Valli. Eastwood also jettisons the whole "musical" element.  On the stage, JERSEY BOYS uses the music of the Four Seasons to tell the story, but on the screen, it's a standard-issue backstage biopic where the live performances and studio recording sessions essentially function in the place of where a montage might go.  A lavish musical with big production numbers might've been a challenge for Eastwood, but his vision of JERSEY BOYS is pretty much a Scorsese-lite gangster saga peppered with some timeless Four Seasons songs, glossing--sometimes quite sloppily--over details, cutting corners, and taking dramatic license when it's convenient or when something might make co-executive producer Frankie Valli look bad.  On the surface, it's a reasonably entertaining film and the musical performances are fine, and, unlike of a lot of Eastwood's directing efforts, it moves rather briskly, but by the end, it's all surface: if you want a BEHIND THE MUSIC breakdown of the Four Seasons, you'll learn more from their Wikipedia page than you will here.

Opening in 1951 Newark, Valli is introduced as 16-year-old Francis Castelluccio, a neighborhood kid with a killer falsetto and plans to attend barber school.  He has strict parents (there's an inspired running gag where random people keep asking him "Hey, aren't you supposed to be home by 11:00?"), but runs with a rough crowd led by would-be gangster Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who plays guitar in a group called the Varietones when he isn't planning half-assed burglaries and trying to get in with local mob kingpin Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). Tommy recognizes Frankie's talent and gets him to join the band, along with another trouble-prone buddy, bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). They change their name to The Four Lovers and get some local recognition, but that changes when their buddy Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo)--yes, that Joe Pesci, Tommy clarifies, with young Pesci even asking "Funny how?" at one point--introduces them to former Royal Teens keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who wrote the hit song "Short Shorts."  Gaudio has the songwriting chops they need, and coupled with Frankie's voice and the production expertise of Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), the Four Seasons are born, despite the objections of Tommy, who sees himself as the leader of the group and constantly resorts to the bullying tactics of the Newark streets in order to maintain that authority. What follows is a strictly connect-the-dots chronicle of the band's rise, fall, and eventual rise again at their 1990 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction:  they get screwed by a record contract, life on the road takes its toll, marriages get ruined, Gaudio and Tommy butt heads over the direction of the band, Tommy's excesses cause the whole thing to implode, etc, etc.

After the "1951" title card, the time element in JERSEY BOYS is handled atrociously.  It's completely abandoned by Eastwood, so there's often no way of telling if days or years have gone by. A character in 1951 is talking about wanting to see THE BLOB, which was made in 1958. Frankie marries tough-talking Mary (Renee Marino) and has a daughter.  Then he gets back from a tour and has three teenage girls at home. Sometimes you can only tell that a long period of time has passed because the sideburns get longer, the lapels get wider, and Gaudio's goatee gets more unkempt. Mary says she's sick of Frankie's serial adultery, but we never see it. After the marriage ends, Frankie has a fling with a Detroit reporter (Erica Piccininni), who vanishes only to reappear much later talking about "all the things we've been working for" as she dumps him. What things? Where have you been?  And do we even know your name? Characters appear and disappear throughout with no explanation, and not in a way that feels like their scenes were just cut, but more in a way that these scenes just never existed in the first place. There's little sense of context:  we're told Gaudio wrote "Short Shorts," but we're not told that he was 15 when he wrote it.  As played by the 28-year-old Bergen, Gaudio is introduced like he's some older, experienced musician who can offer them guidance and who knows his way around the music industry, when in fact, he was only 17 when he hooked up with the decade-older Frankie and the even-older Tommy, who was already past 30 when they hit it big. With that in mind, it's easy to see Tommy's resentment of this Gaudio kid taking creative control, but that noteworthy age difference never comes up.  Also, Tommy, Frankie, Nick Massi, and Tommy's brother Nick DeVito had some minor success as The Four Lovers, releasing two albums and several singles on a major label. JERSEY BOYS presents them as music industry novices who had no idea how the business worked prior to Gaudio replacing Nick DeVito and turning them into The Four Seasons. In reality, Valli and Crewe worked together during the Four Lovers era, but the film has Gaudio introducing the band to Crewe.  Crewe would become the band's lyricist and de facto fifth member, but the movie shows Gaudio as the guy who wrote everything and Crewe as their producer, except much later when Gaudio says something about "Bob needing to write some lyrics." Then there's the issue of Frankie's oldest daughter Francine.  At 17, Francine (Freya Tingley) runs away from home and Frankie has to fly from Vegas to Jersey to find her. He does, and tells her that Gaudio will write some songs for her and they'll get a voice coach to help her be the singer she always wanted to be.  It's supposed to be a powerful moment of emotional bonding between an estranged father and daughter, but because we've seen Francine for maybe 30 seconds prior to this and know nothing about her, the whole incident comes out of thin air and falls completely flat.

Perhaps most egregiously, JERSEY BOYS implies that the Four Seasons broke up after some Tommy-instigated money problems at some point in the 1960s (I'm guessing--the timeline isn't really clear). It's a huge blow-up that prompts a frustrated Massi to quit the band and stay home with his family, which would put it in 1965 if we go by actual history, which Eastwood, Brickman, and Elice apparently don't have the time or the inclination to do. Tommy exits the story at this point, and Frankie becomes a solo artist to pay off Tommy's debts, but in reality, Tommy was in the band for another five years, and while Tommy and Gaudio would eventually quit (though he retired from recording and touring, Gaudio continued to work behind the scenes as the group's songwriter), Valli never disbanded the Four Seasons and has remained the sole constant member.  The film doesn't even mention the successful late '70s incarnation of the group, with future drummer Gerry Polci handling lead vocals on the 1976 hit single "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)," a song that JERSEY BOYS portrays, along with Valli's 1975 solo hit "My Eyes Adored You," as belonging to the original Four Seasons lineup.  Perhaps this is how co-executive producers Valli and Gaudio see things in their own Rashomon structure, but there's a fine line between dramatic license and rewriting history.

Young has this role down, so it's no surprise that he's fine as Valli, even if it's asking a bit much to buy the now-38-year-old performer playing 16 in the early parts of the film. Bergen and Lomenda are both vets of the touring versions of the musical, and handle their roles reasonably well, considering their relative newness to the medium.  Bergen has an odd Jeff Goldblum-meets-Michael Shannon demeanor that indicates he'd do well in character parts if he chooses to pursue a career in movies, while Lomenda, who plays Massi as a bit of a lunkheaded lug, more or less gets relegated to the background but does get a couple of instances where he does an effective job of playing not-very-articulate guy struggling to get his feelings across.  Piazza, the only non-musical performer of the quartet, goes for the standard "tough mook" act that he does as Lucky Luciano on HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE, but isn't asked to do much other than be the self-centered asshole of the group. Walken has a few scenes where he gets to be Walken, which is always fun, and at least a couple of his lines feel improvised (especially "Don't use my bathroom!" which, in context, sounds like a hilarious ad-lib). The cliched scenes of Frankie's home life do nothing but slow the film to a halt, especially since we have no idea who the women in his life really are, whether it's his wife or, after the divorce, the reporter.  Like Bergen and Lomenda, Marino is a veteran of the touring version of JERSEY BOYS and played various female roles on different tours, but her performance here as Mary Valli is embarrassingly bad.  Perhaps she's too accustomed to theatrically over-projecting for the live-on-stage factor and didn't adjust to the different medium like Bergen and Lomenda, but her shrewish, booze-swilling, bitch-on-wheels act is unbearable and more fitting for a WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? production staged by Tommy Wiseau. She's overwrought and completely over-the-top, snarling and shrieking her way through her scenes, but given the liberties that the story takes with other elements, perhaps Marino should be given the benefit of the doubt.  Is it possible that her performance is the way it is because that's how Valli wanted his ex-wife portrayed? JERSEY BOYS has some good performances, from both acting and musical perspectives, but it suffers from the same issues that plague several recent Eastwood films:  known as the most efficient director in Hollywood, one who always comes in under budget and ahead of schedule, perhaps he's getting a little sloppy.  He throws in some nice touches--I liked his attempts at sticking to filming techniques of the era, like a blatantly fake process screen background in a car scene, the kind you'd see in a 1960s movie, and the obvious backlot used for the early Newark neighborhood scenes--but he doesn't really seem fully committed here. The Eastwood of 40 or even 20 years ago wouldn't have allowed a performance as mind-bogglingly awful as Marino's to happen, regardless of her inexperience or (hypothetically) Valli's wishes. An engaged Eastwood would've seen during production that it wasn't working. It's one thing to think it's a good idea to cast Raul Julia and Sonia Braga as Germans in a dumb action movie like 1990's THE ROOKIE, but this is something else entirely. Around the time of INVICTUS--his worst film as a director--I had a discussion with some friends and we concluded that perhaps Eastwood was cranking his films out a little too quickly. Eastwood need not prove anything to anyone, and at 84 and in his seventh decade in the movies, it's great that he can work so frequently, but if he's going to rush through them and not give a shit, then what's the point?

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