You don’t have to be middle-aged, or even an adult, to know songs like “Sherry,” ”Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man.” Sure, they’re ’60s-era hits by The Four Seasons, but they’ve become such pop culture fixtures that even youngsters who’ve never heard the name Frankie Valli could surely croon a few bars in his signature falsetto.
It’s little wonder that the stage musical “Jersey Boys” has become one of the most successful shows in Broadway history on the strength of those sublimely catchy tunes. And it’s also little wonder that the prospect of bringing the show to the screen appealed to Clint Eastwood, who at 84 is still, blessedly, up for challenges.
What’s rather curious, though, is that with all the talent involved — not only Eastwood as director, but an excellent cast plucked from “Jersey Boys” stage regulars — the film is distinctly uneven, hugely appealing at times and oddly pedestrian, even cheesy, at others.
One problem may be that “Jersey Boys” tries to do a few things at once. On one level, it’s a fairly faithful re-creation of the Broadway show; the same writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, penned the screenplay, and the excellent John Lloyd Young reprises his Tony-winning performance as Valli. But it also aims to be an edgier film exploring the band’s entanglements with the mob back in Jersey — a sort of “Goodfellas” to pop music. The goals don’t always mix.
The dialogue, too, sometimes sounds overly, well, stagey. And a key convention of the show — band members breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly — is used unevenly, abandoned for long stretches and suddenly popping up when it doesn’t feel needed.
We begin as Frankie Castelluccio, a sweet-faced boy of 16 (Young, at 38, somehow pulls this off) is trying to break through as a singer while training at a barbershop. Luckily, he’s supported by music-loving mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken, in a sure-bet role here) and loyal buddy Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who can’t stay out of trouble himself, but through sheer grit launches the band that will become The Four Seasons.
The two, plus bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) are struggling for attention when aspiring agent Joey Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci) introduces them to songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen.) Gaudio’s talent is just what they need.
It takes a full hour to get to a big musical number, and boy, it’s a welcome relief to hear the boys sing “Sherry,” their first number-one hit.
Other hits follow — and all kinds of trouble. The movie, best when it lets us simply enjoy these lovely harmonies and Young’s terrific falsetto stylings, soon veers back into band infighting. Tommy, we learn, has landed the boys in serious financial straits. Heartache ensues.
And what about the women, you ask? Alas, they begin on the sidelines, and stay there. As Mary, Frankie’s wife, Renee Marino is sexy and smart in the beginning, but turns into a total caricature of a drunken shrew by mid-movie. Speaking of caricatures, Frankie’s yelling-across-the-table Italian-American family seems a bit much, too.
On a technical level, the film veers between creative and oddly mediocre, namely in a driving sequence that looks so fake, you wonder if it was intentional.
There’s one striking misstep in tone, too. When Frankie sings “My Eyes Adored You” to his school-aged daughter, you have to wonder if the filmmakers thought about this prominent lyric, certainly not meant to be about a child: “Though I never laid a hand on you, my eyes adored you.”
The film, though, comes through at other moments, mainly those involving the pure joy of making music that sounds good. A closing credits sequence is like a Broadway show of its own (and who doesn’t love to see Walken dancing?) At those moments, much is forgiven. Sure. We’ll stay, just a little bit longer.
“Jersey Boys,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for language throughout.” Running time: 134 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.