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Monday, July 25, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Jersey Boys (2014)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda
Domestic Box Office: $47,047,013

If Hollywood can be said to have any one motto, it's got to be "If it worked once, it will work again." That's why we're awash in sequels and reboots and remakes and copycats, the thinking being that there's safety in the familiar, whereas putting out something totally new means entering uncharted territory and taking a risk. Never mind that audiences often reject those more-of-the-same things, the idea that lightning can strike twice is enough to get studios to put millions of dollars into a project before stopping to consider if the audience is going to be big enough to justify it. The "jukebox musical" subgenre should be more popular than it's proven to be, given that the songs are already popular and given that some of the most prominent recent examples are based on celebrated stage plays. Yet, the last really successful one was Mamma Mia!, while films like Rock of Ages, Across the Universe, and Moulin Rouge!, despite being built around popular songs, failed to have an impact at the box office. Add to that list Jersey Boys, the 2014 adaptation of the stage musical that came and went so fast, and made so little, that you'd be forgiven for having no idea that it existed in the first place.

To me, the biggest question mark about Jersey Boys is director Clint Eastwood. Eastwood is one of the most powerful filmmakers in Hollywood. He can literally make whatever movie he wants and follow his passion wherever it takes him. So I'm baffled by Jersey Boys, which feels like it was made with complete disinterest, as if Eastwood was just looking for something to pass the time with before moving on. The film feels dead on arrival, stripped of all urgency and suffering from a major problem with pacing. In telling the story of The Four Seasons, the film goes too far back to find its beginning, opening with Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) as a teenager who has been taken under the wing of Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), a small time hoodlum and an aspiring musician. You could easily drop the first half hour to forty minutes of this movie and begin it at the point where the members of the original Four Seasons - Valli, DeVito, Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) - come together to form a quartet and it would go a long way towards addressing the film's pacing problem. This would not only cut down the film's ridiculous running time (by the time it reaches the end of its 134 minutes, even it feels bored with the story), it would also eliminate the scenes where the audience is asked to believe the then 38 year old Young as a 16 year old Valli, who is always being reminded that he has a curfew.

I really can't stress enough how little those early scenes add to the film as a whole. One might argue that the opening passages establish some of the story's crucial relationships, including the friendship between Valli and DeVito, and Valli's relationship with his first wife, but I don't think that argument would hold up. The film doesn't particularly care about Valli's relationship with his first wife, who disappears for long stretches of the story, only reappearing whenever the film wants to take a second or two to emphasize what Valli has given up by being on the road and how he's been an absent presence in the lives of his children. The film cares more about the band's rise and fall than about the personal lives of the bands members, which would be fine - the in-band story is interesting enough, involving mob ties, tensions between the members, the division of Valli and Gaudio from DeVito and Massi, DeVito's self-sabotaging his way out of the group, and Valli's falling on his sword by taking on a mountain of debt just to get out of the predicament that DeVito has put the band in - except that the film feels obligated to address Valli's personal life sporadically throughout. While this is because there's a crucial plot point late in the film that turns on one of Valli's daughters, the film's tendency to look at life away from the band in brief, scattered nuggets (Valli has a daughter, now he has three daughters and his wife is an alcoholic, DeVito is married but we never meet his wife and the fact of his marriage only comes up in passing while introducing a girlfriend who will never be seen again, Valli hooks up with a reporter who then promptly disappears from the story only to reappear sometime later while they have a fight about how frustrated she is that nothing has changed despite how long they've been together, etc.) means that that event doesn't really have any impact. We aren't invested in Valli's family relationships because we never have the opportunity to be.

As for the relationship between Valli and DeVito, given that the film's framing device is the characters breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly, I think that the basics - DeVito was a hustler with big plans, Valli was a kid with talent, Valli got into some trouble hanging out with DeVito but DeVito took the fall for him, they formed a trio with Massi but struggled to get a break until meeting Gaudio, a talented songwriter - could have been conveyed via one of those monologues and sped things up a bit. Once the film gets to the point in the story where things actually start happening - the band gets a deal with producer Bob Crewe, records a string of hits, and then begins to fall apart from the inside out - Jersey Boys becomes a serviceable, if not in any respect innovative, rags to riches musical biopic and gets to use its framing device to best effect by having the members disagree about why and when things began to fall apart, using the direct address to put forth differing versions. But it's kind of too late by that point and then, once the band breaks up, the film falls into the genre's trap of rushing through the subsequent decades of events in order to tell the "full" story and end on a note of redemption and bygones being bygones.

Jersey Boys isn't a very good film and there's nothing about it that screams "summer movie," except perhaps as an attempt at counterprogramming designed to attract adult viewers looking for reprieve from the loud action and big comedy that overpopulates the cineplex during summer. I mean, objectively speaking, Mamma Mia! isn't a very good movie either, but it was a summer success. The difference between Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys is that the former is a fun watch while the latter is pretty gloomy. The characters in Jersey Boys spend more time brooding than they do singing, and when you add that to the slow as molasses storytelling, you end up with a hard sell. Even with an early spring or early fall release Jersey Boys, in its present form at least, would have had some difficulty making a dent at the box office because it's so heavy and so lacking in passion. If given the choice, go with the play.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: Nope.


Helen said...

This has been on numerous times on my cable channel recently and I've tried watching for a few minutes at a time but it has never pulled me in. Now I know why and I won't bother with it anymore! Thanks!

Norma Desmond said...

It is honestly so, so boring.