Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: "Jersey Boys" is a Mildly Fun and Upbeat Dose of Nostalgic Doo Wop

Left to right: Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen,
John Lloyd Young, and Michael Lomenda

There was a point sometime in the past 15 years when Clint Eastwood lost his bite. Basically, the man who made misanthropic epic westerns like High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven was moving on into a new phase of his career: AARP filmmaking. Despite its pejorative connotation, Eastwood has become a master at making films geared almost specifically to people in his age bracket. With limited exceptions, all of his films have in some way been harmless nostalgia flicks geared at making elderly people feel good about their contributions to society. With Gran Torino being his most iconic example of this, he continues to dominate the AARP filmmaking genre with his latest film Jersey Boys: an adaptation of a Broadway smash "musical" about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Does the elderly director do the group proud?

There's the overall question that is asked when approaching Jersey Boys: Why? It isn't that a chart topping group lacks appeal, but compared to almost every other artist, they don't have much draw as adaptation material. Somewhere in the process however, a musical was formed that suggested something more. There was a story involving ties to the mob and money woes that makes the quaint little group's story a little more traumatic. When juxtaposed with the upbeat doo wop sound, it captures an almost Martin Scorsese-esque comparison to Goodfellas. That is unfortunate because even at his best, Eastwood was never striving for Scorsese's style.

The story revolves around Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), whose one gift in life was his voice. While his friends were going in and out of jail, he was let loose thanks to his wonderful singing voice. With an origin story that hits all of the familiar beats, we get a sense of The Four Seasons' formation and eventual demise, all presented through fourth wall-breaking narration that may at times ring silly, but adds a Wonder Years quality to the film. It isn't striving for high art, but solid, harmless entertainment with a story that is a little edgy, but not off putting. Even if the film never excels in being great, it reflects Eastwood's ability to make serviceable films that aren't totally pandering such as Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Magic of Belle Isle. He gives enough personality to let the film simply exist in a humble middle ground.

If there is one issue, it is even considering this a musical. Eastwood may be a terrible call for making a bombastic musical. Despite featuring several iconic songs and performances on both The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand, there isn't much necessity to the songs. Many exist solely as minute interludes between scenes. It may be a fault of the jukebox musical genre, but the spontaneity leaves many songs underwhelming in use. The actors, many of whom were transplanted from the actual musical, are fine when singing the songs. However, a lot of the performances exist solely for the actors to do asides. For a movie based on a musical, it does the worst job possible in making the music feel important. Save for Valli's story, the music simply exists in a world where everybody loves it, but we can't hear why.

This isn't to discredit the rest of the film. While it fails as a musical, the story is actually really solid. For a group that seems undermined by the history books, there is a lot of compelling plot beats. Maybe they come across at times as being too conventional, but with solid performances by Young and Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, the drama feels more authentic in its execution. There's a familial sense to the drama and even if the supporting players rarely get much to work with, the film succeeds in a straightforward resolution. Even if the final dance number feels arbitrary by the rest of the film's standards, it does reflect the upbeat optimism that Eastwood at least succeeds in portraying through drab cinematography and a goofy sense of purpose.

Is Jersey Boys great cinema? Not really. It shares more in common with the biopics like Great Balls of Fire than it does Walk the Line. It is about the story, not the songs. This may be disappointing, given the impressive amount of hits to potentially tap from, but given Eastwood's limitations, he manages to scrap together one of the more preferable safe movies since Saving Mr. Banks. It won't revolutionize cinema or possibly even rank among the legendary director's best, but this is a film that hits all of the right beats and makes no fuss over any conflicts. It is serviceable and with it appealing to Eastwood's current demographic, it is more successful in execution than any gritty interpretation would likely have. 


I'll admit that I haven't fully liked an Eastwood film since Invictus five years ago. Even if J. Edgar became an insufferable mess, I still think that he is doing something right. Maybe he is not striving for the same acclaim that he once did. He doesn't need to prove himself after over 50 years of acting and even four Oscar wins as well as two Best Picture winners. Even then, I do consider him somewhat of a master of bland filmmaking in that while his work may be as symbolic of his ideals, he at least has produced at a consistent quality that isn't pandering. Much like George Clooney and his genre jumping Americana technique, Eastwood has passion for his youth, and that's what these films reflect. While it is unfortunate that they feel almost as dated as those passions, he gives them the respect they deserve. Unfortunately, I don't think musicals are in his interest because I refuse to call this a musical, even if it was adapted from one.

Does Jersey Boys stand any chance at an Oscar nomination? I highly doubt it. Part of me was hoping that this could be on par with Gran Torino, Invictus, or even Million Dollar Baby in terms of compelling storytelling. The film isn't bad, but given its early release and my belief that Get On Up is going to overshadow it very soon, the film will solely exist as another film on Eastwood's resume. It won't get awards, but as evident by my screening, the audience it is geared towards will love it. This thinking tends to not work given the idea that it implies the audiences are stupid (see the case of young males liking Transformers movies). I'm not calling the AARP audience dumb, but simply content in their lot in life without much concern for challenging stories.

Even then, I do want to say that I was impressed with John Lloyd Young and Vincent Piazza's performances. As the two central characters, there was a certain bond that I felt made their scenes magnetic. Especially as the drama was building, I got the sense that as the founding members of the group, they had something more invested into their careers. They were wildly different things, but it doesn't excuse the emotional weight brought to the scenes. Even if everyone gives good performances, the film would've probably been less interesting with two different leads. Or at very least, the asides would seem less profound even in their silly realism. 

Is Jersey Boys capable of being more than a mild hit at the box office? Will the film's critical backlash keep it from getting any awards? Do people feel cheated by calling it a musical?

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