"Jersey Boys" is positioned as a proverbial walk down memory lane with hit-making 1960s pop group Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. On paper this sounds like a toe-tapping good time, all the better because just about every song on the soundtrack is instantly recognizable. Indeed, there is a reason why the 2005 Broadway jukebox musical on which the film is based is still going strong on the Great White Way and as a touring company across the country. This big-screen telling is a different beast, getting off to a sluggish start that feels like "Goodfellas"-lite and not even arriving at its first big number until well past the 30-minute mark. Director Clint Eastwood (2011's "J. Edgar
") and screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have made a sudsy melodrama weighed down by lugubrious pacing and a checklist of clichés. Are there some strong performances and the occasional potent moment? Sure. The problem is that there is no joy or liveliness to what's been put in front of the camera. Based on the evidence here, being a member of The Four Season was miserable for all involved, and not even a lavish end-credits song-and-dance routine (the first in the film, and the only one with any energy) can change this downer of an impression.
The year is 1951but won't be for long, as each scene appears to be set a year later than the last. The place is Belleville, NJ, where residents only manage to get out of town by joining the army, getting "mobbed" up, or becoming famous. 16-year-old Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) is just a kid practicing to be a hairdresser at the local barbershop when slightly older buddy Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) invites him to join himself and his local band for a club performance. Frankie's silky falsetto voice captures the attention of everyone in the room, and pretty soon talent scout Joe Pesci (Joey Russo)yes, the future Oscar-winning actoris pairing them with bass guitarist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and young songwriter/keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) for a brand-new music group. Backed by record producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) and a key name change for the lead singer, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons is born. Success comes quickly as their early songs ("Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man") start burning up the charts, but with the good comes a downside that threatens to break them up while they are at their peak.
Typically, musician biopics are about artists who, no matter what troubles they run into later in their careers and private lives, start at a place where it is all about the passion they have for singing. As "Jersey Boys" sees it, Frankie and his fellow band members were talented, but their drive was not about the music so much as what the profession could give them once they hit it big. In between their stage performances, the guys party with a bevy of women, bicker a lot, occasionally throw things in frustration, and generally have trouble seeing eye to eye as egos, strained family lives, and Tommy's huge debts to loan shark Norm Waxman (Donnie Kehr) get in the way. The years fly by so quickly that one minute Frankie is getting married to the frisky, spirited Mary (Renée Marino), and the next time she appears they have a five-year-old daughter together. A few minutes later, they have three children, the oldest, Francine (Freya Tingley), a rebellious 17-year-old who is forever running away from home and getting involved with the wrong people. Apparently Francine has an excellent voice, even better than her father's, but the viewer would never know it because she isn't seen singing so much as a single note.
Reprising his Tony-winning role as Frankie Valli, John Lloyd Young is uncanny in emulating the sound and pitch of his true-life counterpart. At 38, he still looks youthful enough to (almost) pass for a teenager while finding the appropriate gravitas later on as the character ages. His best moments, oddly, have nothing to do with his band, the too-rare scenes he shares with wife Mary and daughter Francine the most dramatically punchy. A dead-ringer for Tina Fey (it is unbelievable that they aren't at least related), stage actress Renée Marino (in her first film) lights up her every second with a fire and intelligence behind her eyes that makes one wish she wasn't eventually relegated to being a pill-popping, long-suffering nag. Meanwhile, Freya Tingley is a touching older Francine, a lost young girl angry that her dad was always on the road and rarely there for her while she was growing up. Vincent Piazza (2007's "Stephanie Daley
"), who could be Robert Pattinson's brother, is charismatic as the wheeling-dealing Tommy DeVito, a natural, if misguided, leader of the pack, while Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda (in his debut) are well-cast in underwritten roles as Four Seasons members Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi. Showing up here and there as the most sensitive mob boss there ever was is Christopher Walken (2012's "Seven Psychopaths
"), bringing his one-of-a-kind deadpan twinkle to Angelo 'Gyp' DeCarlo.
Much like the individual members of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, "Jersey Boys" goes through the motions with no detectable inspiration outside of the sheer talent of the performers. Director Clint Eastwood has missed the mark here to a pretty sizable degree, bringing a one-note heaviness to the film's tone that drains the story and the glorious music of all its life. Watching songs like "Big Girls Don't Cry," "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" come to life on the screen should be a giddy experience, and yet they are weighed down by all of the interpersonal conflicts in between. Eastwood can never quite find the right tone where these two sides accurately congeal, though the nostalgic 1990-set finale where the former bandmates reunite for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction would be a perfectly bittersweet topper if what had come before it wasn't so mediocre. When all is said and done, one cannot help but think that Frankie Valli might have been a whole lot happier if he had stuck with the hairdressing.