Breaking the fourth wall isn’t new; in fact, it’s a narrative device that’s been used for as long as actors have taken to the stage, where they can turn a play into an interactive event by “including” the audience in the production. This essence of community, though, loses some of its magic when translated to celluloid. Don’t get me wrong, breaking the fourth wall has been used to great effect in some modern comedies (such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), adding texture to the comedic activities that the characters find themselves in. But a dramatic connection to the audience is limited to the fact that the actors are only speaking to a camera instead of being able to absorb audience reaction to shape their performances. In translating Jersey Boys from stage to screen, Clint Eastwood does a really good job at bringing these characters and their journey to life, but loses some emotional impact by trying to keep the structure of the stage narrative on the screen.
Based on the stage play of the same name (written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice), Jersey Boys chronicles the lives of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and the Four Seasons, which also includes Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergin), who all had a hand in helping turn the tide from a struggling group known as The Four Lovers into a powerhouse musical and vocal sensation.
Young was the original actor to portray Frankie on stage, so it makes perfect sense to bring him back to act as the ground for all of the other characters. He combines a level of innocence that contradicts growing up in the “mean streets” of New Jersey in the fifties with an unadulterated loyalty. Even though his family and community believe Frankie would be better off staying away from Tommy and his “hoodlum” ilk, Frankie sees something in him that he trusts and can confide in. And though this trust can be misplaced at times, especially when they put Frankie in situations that he shouldn’t be in (such as breaking into a church in the middle of the night to serenade a girl), Tommy continually puts Frankie above his own well-being to make sure he remains the good kid with a strong head on his shoulders.
Tommy believes Frankie is meant for more than his career as a barber, as does their mentor, friend and employer, Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken doing what Christopher Walken does best), so when Tommy asks Frankie to be the lookout during a heist to steal a six-foot safe full of money (one of the more absurd, yet hilarious scenes in the film), Tommy takes the heat when everything goes south. And just hearing him sing one of his favorite songs moves Gyp to give Frankie a lifelong “chip” to be used for help whenever he gets into trouble he can’t get out of. That type of loyalty can never be broken.
It’s not until the group decides to bring Bob Gaudio (a writer and singer who was part of the mega-hit “Short Shorts”) that everything changes for the better. However, with that decision comes friction, as Bob only joins the group because of the possibilities that might come from working alongside a singer with Frankie’s unique vocal range. Bob and Frankie quickly form a bond that goes beyond the friendship he has with Tommy, and together they are able to break down the barriers that were once keeping them from becoming anything but a two-bit lounge group. When Bob and Frankie go knocking door-to-door (of literally the same hallway) of several different music labels that all reject them for a variety of different reasons, we’re given what amounts to the short short version of what may have really happened — but we also get to see these two young men find their footing in a brutal industry.
The group is eventually signed by Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), who takes the boys under his wing, promising to record four singles with them. But over the next year, they spend more time recording background vocals for others than they do their own stuff. That all changes when Bob writes the song “Sherry,” which sets off a trio of number one hits, which also includes “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like A Man.”
Each member of the Four Seasons has a very distinct personality that blend extremely well together, and there’s a fine mix of humor and drama at play that helps push these young boys into very complicated men. But what Eastwood fails to capture is the dramatic tension that’s needed to give the film the emotional weight it wants to deliver.
One reason for this is in the breaking of the fourth wall. Each one of the group members takes a turn helping to narrate the film by breaking character and speaking directly to the audience, but where this might work well on stage, it feels quite jarring and unnecessary in the narrative structure of the film. There’s one section that takes us back in time to help explain why there’s a certain amount of friction happening among the different members of the group (most notably, between Tommy and Nick). Because these flashbacks don’t give us any information that we couldn’t have learned about earlier, the only reason it’s set up like this is because of the narrative structure. I believe that if they had foregone breaking the fourth wall and told the story in chronological order, it would have added dramatic tension by allowing us to experience the moments and the journey as they did instead of suddenly giving us a heads up about the reason behind the friction.
Another aspect of dramatic tension that seems to be missing is in the emotional layering between Frankie and his family, which is supposed to have a big impact at the end of the movie, but ultimately falls a little flat. Eastwood chooses to focus most of his energy in developing the relationship between Frankie and Tommy, and though this is where the core of the drama lies, it forces what turns out to be the true heart and soul of the film into a minor subplot that, when it’s finally dealt with, leaves a lot to be desired, especially when it concerns Frankie and one of his daughters, Francine (played in various ages by Grace Kelley, Elizabeth Hunter and Freya Tingley).
Because of his life on the road, Frankie has somewhat ignored his family, leading to the downward spiral of his first wife, Mary (Renée Marino). When they eventually get divorced, Francine begins to act out in dangerous ways — or so we’re led to believe. We’re meant to feel the loss that Francine feels in this connection, but because we hardly get but three scenes with her, we’re never given a chance to see how these two are together that would give credence to the depth of their relationship. Thus, when a major story development happens in the back half of the third act, which leads to the outstanding performance of “Can’t Keep My Eyes Off You,” the emotion that Frankie pours into that song is lost in the lack of investment we should have had in the relationship that gives the song its true meaning.
Aside from all that, Eastwood still has a keen knack of keeping us entertained. His pace and ability to craft a story are impeccable, and he’s more than capable of molding his players into a tight-knit family. The most electric of the four was Piazza as Tommy. By mixing his Jason Priestly arrogance with a scent of Robert Pattinson brooding, he pops off the screen with effortless charisma, whether he’s fighting to move the band forward and doing what he thinks is best for them, or getting Bob laid for the first time.
There’s no argument that over the last decade, Eastwood has directed some terrific films (including Million Dollar Baby, Invictus, and Mystic River), and although Jersey Boys is right up there with his best, delivering some fun characters and just the right amount of musical numbers, it does fall short in having the dramatic effect it should, failing to grab us simply because the narrative structure of the source material didn’t translate from stage to screen.
My Grade: A-
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