Friday, June 20, 2014

So Close, And Yet So Far: JERSEY BOYS

For the last twenty years or so, from Unforgiven to Million Dollar Baby and J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s directorial efforts have been clearly the works of an old man. I don’t mean that negatively. His movies have had a clean, classical design to their studied shots. They have deliberate rhythms, a confident relaxed quality to the patient way they unfold, a spare simplicity to the way scenes linger, playing quietly and earnestly. His color palate has grown increasingly pale, production design draped in stillness and shadow, with lighting often funeral parlor dim. With his latest film Jersey Boys, an adaptation of the high-energy Broadway jukebox musical based on the 1960s rise of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, he brings down the tempo to match his style. On stage the show is fast and flashy. Here it’s downbeat, full of sad reality, contract disputes, and flawed individuals who, despite obvious talents, make it big through luck and timing more than anything. It’s a perspective, earned weary cynicism, only an 84-year-old who has spent 60 years in showbiz could have.

Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice adapt their own work on the musical into a screenplay that turns the interplay between narrative and song into a straight-ahead musical biopic. It clumsily but cleverly relies upon an audience’s prior understanding of its subgenre’s mechanics and prior knowledge that The Four Seasons were a big deal. It contains shorthand weddings and funerals, wives and mistresses, agents and temptations, sudden success and long-building breakups. It has a scene where the four guys stand around needing a new name for their band when, with a zap, a neon bowling alley sign flickers to life. “The Four Seasons,” it says. It’s a sign, get it? Later, they’re stuck for ideas when their producer happens to say, “big girls don’t cry.” Boom. In a cut, they’re singing their hit song of that name. It’s so earnestly turns on clichés it’s almost a self-aware wink. (Speaking of winks, Eastwood puts himself in the period context, as a TV playing an episode of Rawhide is turned off as his youthful head fills its screen.)

This mild self-awareness is in keeping with the one theatrical quality that makes it to the screen. The four band members narrate the story. A standard scene will move along normally when one of the guys steps out of the scene, turns to the camera, and tells us how they see it. This approach solves a big problem biopics can have where the characters go around acting like they’ve already read the history books on the matter. These characters actually do know what happens. They step aside and confide in us, youthful stand-ins for elderly memories. First we meet Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who tells us about his youthful criminal conduct outside of Newark. When not in jail, he has a band – with a mob benefactor (Christopher Walken) – that plays small local gigs and asks his buddy Frankie (John Lloyd Young) to step in as lead singer. One thing leads to another. They invite a songwriter (Eirch Bergen) to help them cut demos of original material. He picks up the narration for a while as the group struggles for a spell before finally catching a lucky break.

It’s smooth sailing for a while, until Tommy’s shady mob connections catch up to them, at which point their bass player (Michael Lomenda) takes over the story. The movie doubles back two years to reveal the sailing wasn’t as smooth as the earlier narrators spun it. Eastwood and his screenwriters aren’t rigorously committed to the point-of-view structure, allowing for dramatic developments in any character’s life to occur whenever they want regardless of whether or not the current narrator would’ve known. Still, it’s a sometimes-effective structure that, at best, manages to inhabit clichés and bust through them in the same moment. What’s curious is the way this production’s flatlined energy manages to create a sense of weary reminiscences. The story of the band’s success doesn’t once contain a spark of excitement or sense of discovery. It’s slow and resigned. It’s not a movie that exists in present tense. It takes its cue from the narrators and views the events as if shot through the mists of time, squinting to remember details.

The original Broadway cast plays the band, a completely ridiculous idea when they’re playing 16, but much better when in their 30s and 40s. They sing and dance to all the old hits – “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Rag Doll,” and more – but off stage are low-key. They relax too far into the material, unlike Walken, who realizes Eastwood’s approach will require more energy on the performer’s part to enliven the proceedings. Their individual traits remain broadly sketched, partly a function of the writing. Isn’t it funny how biopics can make real individuals into stock stereotypes? At times, this one gets closer to musician bio-parody Walk Hard than anything else in the subgenre. But the cultural specificity of their hometown Italian Catholic New Jersey milieu, a place where the Pope and Frank Sinatra had equal regard, has a broad sense of place that helps ground their sleepy characterizations. When, by the end, the guys show up in dodgy old-age makeup, warmly happy to sing again, there’s a sense that the movie we watched was their way of burying the past, making sense of their own story in Hollywood terms.

I found it largely kitsch and cliché, but half-moving in its own peculiar way. I was quite taken with these final scenes, where a swivel of the camera and a smooth edit takes us from the elderly makeup to youthful vigor. Frankie, at long last, speaks directly to the camera, his thoughts the only mystery throughout. It’s syrupy and poignant. The music swells. Cut to black. Then there’s a bright backlot musical sequence, a fantasy reunion/curtain call of sorts, that’s the best scene in the picture. It is lovely artifice, suggesting the ultimate showbiz honor is to have messy lives subsumed totally and thus be immortalized by movie fakery.

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