‘Jersey Boys’ sounds great but lacks depth

06/19/2014 3:00 PM

06/19/2014 3:01 PM

Like the ageless tunes littering its soundtrack, “Jersey Boys” is familiar and satisfying, if somewhat slight.

The Tony Award-winning “jukebox musical,” tracing the turbulent rise of seminal pop group the Four Seasons, finally makes the transition from stage to screen almost a decade after its Broadway premiere, bringing with it shifting perspectives and an uncanny recreation of Frankie Valli’s otherworldly vocals (John Lloyd Young, reprising his Tony-winning role).

Guided by the unlikely hand of director Clint Eastwood (although, perhaps not as unlikely as it might seem: he did appear in the musical “Paint Your Wagon” all those years ago, after all), “Boys” can’t sustain the fizzy momentum of its first hour, and struggles to balance broad comedy with pungent drama in the film’s latter half.

For those who haven’t seen the popular musical, “Jersey Boys” follows Tommy DeVito (played here by “Boardwalk Empire’s” Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and Frankie Valli (Young) as they struggle to find a singular sound, land a record deal and avoid indebtedness to the local mob, personified by Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken).

Countless name changes, an assist from Joe Pesci (of all people) and late nights in small clubs finally leads to a breakthrough, uniting the quartet with savvy producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) for a string of No. 1 singles that sound as good today as they did a half century ago: “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” to name just a few.

The Four Seasons are catapulted to fame, and the usual problems afflicting popular bands – in-fighting; massive egos; financial shenanigans; familial strife – are soon making life difficult for Valli and his bandmates.

The turning point arrives when the mob becomes affixed to one member of the Four Seasons in particular, threatening to undo the entire enterprise.

That moment, played out in a long, tense scene, divides the film – and the musical – between its ebullient ascent and its more somber descent into death, disappointment and disillusionment.

Although “Jersey Boys” ends on a (literal) high note, with the 1990 induction of the original four members of the Four Seasons into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, each man weathers turbulent times, including Valli, whose daughter Francine (Freya Tingley) dies of a drug overdose.

The actors, led by Young’s vocally impressive but dramatically inert performance, each get moments to shine, although Piazza, a veteran of the tough-guy milieu, outpaces most of his co-stars, save only Walken, who often appears to be making it up as he goes.

Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s screenplay (adapted from their Tony-nominated musical book) doesn’t provide ample opportunity for its characters to give any sense of suffering, however, which greatly hampers some of the more dramatic episodes. Eastwood’s direction is, as always, unfussy and efficient, forsaking visual flash for an almost monochromatic, documentary-like approach.

As in the musical, the characters directly address the audience – shades of “Goodfellas” or “House of Cards” – which provides many of the narrative’s comedic moments, and also fosters a false sense of intimacy.

Once “Jersey Boys” concludes, you don’t really understand any of the original Four Seasons any better – except, perhaps, the rascally DeVito – and there’s certainly precious little insight into Gaudio or Valli, both of whom are credited as executive producers here.

Imbuing the standard rise-and-fall rock ’n’ roll story with some element of pathos, beyond surface emotions, would have elevated “Jersey Boys” above a straightforward translation from Broadway to Hollywood, but Eastwood and the screenwriters seem patently uninterested in anything beyond stylish recreation.

“Everybody remembers it how they need to,” says Tommy DeVito at the climax of “Jersey Boys,” underscoring the subjective nature of the just-concluded tale.

A little more insight like that – the wry understanding that history can be a complex, contradictory reality – would have helped “Jersey Boys” transcend its “jukebox musical” origins and become something as profound as it is entertaining.

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