Jersey Boys misses high notes

BY MATTHEW BYRD | JUNE 26, 2014 5:00 AM

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2 out of 5 Stars

There are, as anyone who watches enough movies can tell you, thousands of ways to make a horrible film: substandard dialogue, poor pacing, bland (or, even worse, offensive) characterization, pure boredom, and countless other sins. However, a bad movie is at its most deflating and frustrating not when it is blatantly disastrous but rather, when the blueprint of a good film is shown to the viewer, but construction of one doesn’t take place. Jersey Boys is this type of film.

The film, adapted from the hit Broadway musical, follows the trajectory of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the bubblegum pop quartet borne out of the crime and poverty of the Italian ghetto in 1950s Newark, New Jersey. Part-time gangster/bandleader and guitarist Tommy DeVito (Boardwalk Empire’s Vincent Piazza), frequently annoyed bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), keyboardist and musical prodigy Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), and the front man with the falsetto from God Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), navigate petty grudges, mob interests (represented wonderfully by Christopher Walken as Four Seasons friend and mob boss Gyp DeCarlo), and personal debts to become one of the most famous international recording groups in history. The movie is told by the members of the group breaking the fourth wall to the audience. It’s essentially Goodfellas: The Musical.

In fact, looking at Goodfellas is a useful way of diagnosing what makes Jersey Boys feel so lackluster despite so many strong elements. The Four Seasons’ music sounds as great as ever, there’s some terrific actors (Piazza and Walken give particularly strong turns), and Clint Eastwood, with cinematographer Tom Stern, creates a really beautiful atmosphere that reflects the glamour of the era, and the camera moves when it has to and stops when it doesn’t — the trademark of a veteran director who knows how to churn out scene after scene.

The film even has a really subversive play on the traditional “Rise and Fall” dynamic of musical biopics, showing the group as rife with internal divisions and poisonous rivalries from the very beginning, a recipe that may have led to great music but was not conducive to a healthy, prosperous, stable working relationship.

However, all these elements fall apart as soon as the film starts rolling. Like Goodfellas, Jersey Boys has this giant world to explore (the New Jersey Italian ghetto, the record industry in New York, road touring, etc.) and tries to ease the audience into it through narration. However, unlike Goodfellas, which grounded itself in Henry Hill’s perspective and allowed this world to come to life through his eyes, Jersey Boys is a narrative mess, jumping between Tommy and Nick in the first half before essentially becoming a Frankie Valli biopic about halfway through the film’s second act.

This fascinating world that’s assembled with great musical numbers and seamless choreography becomes a cipher. We aren’t embedded in any of the characters’ psychology, so we have a hard time navigating the world we are supposed to spend two hours in. This fundamental problem of structure seeps its way into the weakness of every element in the film, making many emotionally wrought moments feel cursory because, at a basic level, we don’t know these characters enough to care.

Jersey Boys lays out so many intriguing possibilities for a great film — themes of poverty, fame, the mindset of criminality, and others that could’ve been explored. But the toxin at the core of its structure makes it nothing more than a two-hour music video. At least the songs sound good.

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