Eastwood’s ‘Jersey Boys’ is charmingly bland

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First Posted: 5/26/2014

I can understand the old age jokes surrounding Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys,” his big-screen adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical. The movie’s subject, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, was pop royalty long before the debut of MTV. The demographics at my Saturday matinee skewed older, so if you have a good pleated khakis line, now is your time to shine.

The jokes are justified for another reason. Pleasantly bland, “Jersey Boys” unfolds like conversations with my late, sheltered grandmother: offer easy-to-understand highlights, shelve the controversy, and, above all, don’t be upsetting.

Let’s head to the good old days: Belleville, New Jersey, 1951. Barbers shave with a straight razor and cops actually walk a beat. Frankie (John Lloyd Young), a 16-year-old known through Belleville for his pristine pipes, joins his friends Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) in their band. Years pass. Frankie gets married. Nick and Tommy do stints in prison. Everything remains quaint.

Success proves elusive, even when Tommy’s friend Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo) — yes, the feisty actor of “Goodfellas” fame — introduces the band to singer/songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a quiet, eloquent type who upsets Tommy’s goomba leadership. The boys keep hustling. When Bob scribbles a catchy ditty called “Sherry” on a bus ride, the Ferris wheel of success begins its rickety ascent.

In musicals, the song-and-dance numbers punctuate the script, but Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” — keep in mind, I have not seen the stage version — is a perils-of-success drama with music thrown in. With the music taking a backseat, the portrayal of the group’s struggles is passive, even passionless. Frankie’s domestic struggles and Tommy’s financial deceit are addressed and resolved so abruptly that a musical number is needed to round out the proceedings. The story has tension and momentum, but Eastwood, working with the musical’s writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, fails to accentuate those elements. What’s the point of casting Christopher Walken, playing the local mob boss and Frankie’s teary-eyed fan, if he doesn’t add his wobbly menace?

Eastwood wants a movie that is one part merry musical and one part ode to the tough guys of yore, an impossible compromise unless he wants to remake “Guys and Dolls.” Still, “Jersey Boys” has some charm. The songs are catchy, polished, and sung by actors who can actually sing. You won’t be subjected to the auto-tuning and warbling that turned “Rock of Ages” and “Les Misérables,” respectively, into errands.

With its friendly gangsters and platters that matter, Eastwood wants “Jersey Boys” to comfort the audience. But he does his job too well. The characters become tokens of a simpler time, when a handshake was a contract and nuance was something for hippies and Communists. That the usual bounciness of a Broadway musical is depleted gives “Jersey Boys” a weird vibe. It is a drama without the drama, a musical without the “Let’s put on a show!” energy. Eastwood’s effort doesn’t feel nostalgic as much as sanitized. It’s a cocoon pretending to be a time machine.

Rating: W W V

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