The movie musical is one of my absolute favorite genres. It’s a chance to mix two of the greatest art forms that ever existed into a completely absorbing package that pleasures both the eyes and the ears. With that said, failures in this genre are a dime a dozen. Rock of Ages, Nine, Rent (gasp!), the list goes on and on. However, the one consistency that runs through all of these films, fantastic or atrocious, is ambition. Characters expressing feeling through song is just about the most jarring tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal, and as such, it almost always at the very least feels fresh. That is, until now. What I have never seen before tonight was a musical film so utterly devoid of energy that it sucks any the audience had right out of their chests. I had never heard of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons before this film (barring Can’t Take My Eyes Off You of course), and after watching Jersey Boys I understand why.
Jersey Boys begins in the early sixties, as we are introduced to a group of homegrown Italian cartoon characters who will eventually become the popular singing group, The Four Seasons. There’s the madly arrogant self proclaimed group leader Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) a baritone so dull that you’ll wonder how he ties his shoes by himself, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) a talented songwriter with a heart of gold, and of course, the talent, Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young). We chronicle their rise to fame and subsequent fall from grace as money and personal issues start to get in the way. Batta Bing…Batta Boom…you get the picture.
This is one of the most lifeless films I have seen in recent memory. I’m starting to become unsure if Clint Eastwood actually wants to continue directing, or if he’s being forced to at gunpoint. After the abysmal J. Edgar, I wasn’t sure he could sink any lower, but somehow, he’s at least managed to equal it here. Every stylistic choice made here is so phoned in that they practically emit a hold tone.
Shamelessly ripping off the great Martin Scorsese, the story is told by the characters breaking the fourth wall, monologuing to the audience about what’s going on, and how they feel about it. Problem is, unlike in Scorsese’s films, there is absolutely no reason for it. There’s not an ounce of wit in the writing, and we learn nothing about these guys by listening to them talk to us. It’s shameless pandering, as if Eastwood feels the need to hold our hand as he takes us through this story, just on the off chance that we need to smack his hand as he falls asleep telling it.
Speaking of that story, there is not one even slightly unique thing about it. It’s the same assent/decent story we’ve seen in several thousand musical biopics before, and the characters are so generic that it can’t even coast on nostalgia. All of these guys are utter stereotypes, preformed in over the top, stagey fashion by all four actors. That would be fine if the movie had any interest in actually resembling what I’m sure is an electric, over the top jukebox musical, as opposed to the drab, depressing, and annoying piece we are subjected to.
The musical sequences are so anemic that it’s borderline sad. Sure, there’s countless scenes of these four goofballs screeching their way through song after song, but we never see the impact these songs may have had in their time. In the live performance sequences, the audiences sit quietly and look until they are supposed to clap, and the generic sets just sit there while the lame choreography underwhelms us. Most insultingly, during the end of the film, Eastwood gives us the fun, Broadway style number that the whole movie was gasping for. It’s a final slap in the face, essentially him saying “I could have made this a fun movie…but screw you.”
There are a couple scattered virtues here. The always fun Christopher Walken has a couple of good scenes as a heavily connected mob boss. The constantly moving camerawork by Tom Stern is wonderful, as is the production design, beautifully capturing this era. Also, every so often, we’re treated to a small moment that works, either because one of the characters is finally being witty, or there’s a dramatic beat that hits home.
Look, I understand that Eastwood didn’t want to make a stage play. Fine, he can have it his way. However, in that case, there could have at least been some effort here to make this thing pop. As this thing chugs through it’s nearly unbearable 134 minutes, you’ll find yourself gasping for the fresh air outside the theater, and plugging your ears at yet another screechy, generically delivered musical number. I haven’t seen the play, and I’m sure it’s great, but this certainly isn’t doing it any favors. Do yourself a favor. Save the money and just watch the trailer (a condensed version of the entire film), and listen to Can’t Take My Eyes off You again. You’ll be all set.
Damn…I’m really worried about American Sniper now.