'Jersey Boys' is neither tone-deaf nor smash

Matt Pais movie review: 'Jersey Boys'

RedEye's Matt Pais and Ernest Wilkins don't like musicals. This one's OK. And has nothing to do with "Jersey Shore."

**1/2 (out of four)

After a recent cold streak (“Invictus,” “Hereafter,” “J.Edgar”), Clint Eastwood, an admittedly odd choice to direct “Jersey Boys,” makes a few good decisions with his adaptation of the Broadway hit:

>> Casting relative unknowns. As much as some viewers would giggle over seeing Justin Timberlake, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Channing Tatum and Zac Efron as the Four Seasons, that would have been distracting and wrong.

>> Featuring a scene of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for the role) singing a full song early in the movie, to give an immediate sense of his talent and potential. Though the 38-year-old Young does look far too old in early scenes of Frankie at 16.

>> Working with a different makeup team than he did on “J. Edgar,” in which the old-man makeup was just dreadful.

But back to Eastwood being a strange choice. Did you see “Jersey Boys” on stage? It had life and flash. It wasn’t the deepest examination of the music biz or those who simultaneously conquer and are devoured by it, but it was fun. The movie of “Jersey Boys”? Reasonably entertaining; not that fun.

Part of it’s the shaky balance between the “Goodfellas”-lite drama and the music. “Jersey Boys” doesn’t get terribly close to either. Early on, there’s a great moment when Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen, who also played the role on stage) joins the band and we see how he, Frankie, wiseguy leader Tommy (Vincent Piazza) and bassist Nick (Michael Lomenda, another stage vet) build a song as the first step toward creating a legend. Then the movie shrugs off most of the creative process, overlooking the necessary ambition and day-to-day challenges. The family lives get short shrift too, included for emotional weight without the early scenes to suggest the characters even care. It sort of resembles genre parody “Walk Hard;” “That Thing You Do!” better tracked its musicians’ diverging agendas.

And yet there’s enough here for some smiles. The music, of course, is automatic, toe-tapping happiness, and the tactic of different characters addressing the audience works better than expected. The script from the folks behind the Tony-winning play doesn’t make anything out of each man remembering the past differently—that kind of statement needs impact, not just egos and a thin notion of Jersey loyalty.

But every so often, there’s a scene like Frankie’s future wife advising him on the spelling of his name—the film’s version of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) changing The Facebook to Facebook in “The Social Network.” Or Christopher Walken, as a likable mob boss, gaining traction from something as small as his inflection in the line, “Ooh.” Delicious.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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