Too Good to Be True: Eastwood's Jersey Boys walk like Jersey men

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John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda in Jersey Boys.
John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda in Jersey Boys. Keith Bernstein

Too Good to Be True: Eastwood's Jersey Boys walk like Jersey men

Jersey Boys
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Written by Marshall Brickman and Rich Elice.
Starring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken, Mike Doyle and Renee Marino.
Opens Friday, June 20, at multiple locations.

If you think summer movies are clamorous, try a current Broadway musical. Watching Jersey Boys onstage is like soldiering through some extreme eating contest where you're force-fed dessert for three hours. It's all falsetto heroics and hustled-through character drama, every beat of every scene over-scored, over-rehearsed, and overbearing. And it's often glorious, even as the sugar-rush of "Sherry" chills and hardens into a brain freeze.

At the end, when the original Four Seasons reunite at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Frankie Valli launches into a tender mid-song monologue to tell us what moment of his storied career meant the most to him over the years. The best? "Four guys under a street lamp, when it was all still ahead of us, the first time we made that sound — our sound." The tweet-size speech, written by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, is terrifically moving. But here's the thing: The Broadway show never even slowed down long enough to show us that street lamp moment, or the discovery of that sound. As the Valli character reminisced, I thought, "Man, I'd love to see a musical about that."

Clint Eastwood's likable film of Jersey Boys doesn't have time for that moment, either. Still, Eastwood's metabolism saps along at about half the rate of a Broadway director's, and he's not about to play jaunty reprises between each scene. That saves the movie. Rather than an assault, it's a parade of expertly staged (if often familiar) moments that on occasion do something the stage version never attempts: feel a little bit like life as humans live it, or at least like life as it is in old movies. Then, at healthy intervals, John Lloyd Young (the Tony–winner who originated the Valli role on Broadway) uncorks that falsetto, and the gush of pleasure washes away the film's minor infelicities.

Eastwood knows a trick Broadway forgot once ticket prices hit triple digits: Leave 'em wanting more. He also has a feel for street toughs and their prickly pride, anchoring early scenes of street crime and bar life with welcome weight. Their misadventures feel scrappy and desperate, and the rifts that spread within the band as they start racking up No. 1s — mostly fights over girls and money — come to feel momentous. Two of the Four Seasons were dedicated pop-music craftsmen; two were regular guys from the neighborhood chafing at being outclassed.

Eastwood's best sequence is a lengthy meeting between the boys, a Jersey mob boss played by Christopher Walken, and the loan shark that band founder Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) owes $162,000. It's a one-act rich with preening alphas, wounded egos, terrible revelations, several big reversals, a hilarious explosion from the quietest Season (Michael Lomenda), and a rousing declaration from Young's Valli, who manages to take over the band and honor his debts to DeVito and the old neighborhood, all at the same time. At the height of the group's fame, Valli winds up on his own, touring relentlessly to pay back an impossible sum he feels he owes to the folks who gave him a shot. It plays like a gangland parody of today's student loan racket.

Eastwood doesn't have the running time to treat all the significant events so thoroughly. The misery of Valli's road-warrior life is only briefly dramatized. The family drama, including a late tragedy, is skimmed over, as are the details of the singer's lifelong partnership with songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), the boy wonder behind "Short Shorts" and the last to join the original Four Seasons. Gaudio was also the only member of the group with no criminal past, the only one with any business savvy, and the only one not from a strictly working-class background, all of which Bergen suggests in his every scene, and all of which sets off DeVito.

The film retains the show's multi-narrator structure, which casts a different Jersey Boy as our guide for each act, sometimes explaining their motivations right into the camera. But Eastwood doesn't fully commit to the conceit, allowing long stretches to pass without narration. This sows some confusion: When one of the boys starts talking to someone offscreen, you might think he's delivering a monologue. Also distracting: the occasional too-cute moment straight from the stage show, as when Valli and Gaudio knock on doors in a Brill Building hallway apparently modeled on the set of Laugh-In — behind each lurks a keyed-up comic actor ready to pounce.

But the performances are tough-minded and idiosyncratic, especially Piazza's DeVito, a bullying prick who, for all his nasty quirks — blowing his nose on hotel towels, for one — touches some universal pathos: the sadness of the cocksure also-ran, the local hero not built to cut it on the world stage. Young's Valli grows from horny schlemiel to confident master, and his singing is glorious, especially as his material richens as the '60s grind over him.

In the end, that sound is what soars most. If you have any love for it, Jersey Boys should steamroll right over you, especially the climactic revelation of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," a grown-up hit that eschews the old sugar rush in favor of sublimity. Eastwood may never show us his boys discovering themselves under that street lamp, but he gives us a clutch of moments worth treasuring — and mostly without overdoing it.

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