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Movie Review

‘Jersey Boys’ has no Broadway spirit

The new film version of “Jersey Boys” does audiences the favor of allowing them to see the Tony-award winning Broadway show — still running after nine years — starring its Tony-winning original lead actor, for a fraction of Broadway prices.

And that’s where the favors end.

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To appreciate this big-screen jukebox musical about the 1960s vocal group and pop hitmakers the Four Seasons, you need to bring nostalgia, sentimentality, and a taste for dentist-drill close harmonies. All three. If any one of those is missing, “Jersey Boys” will stand revealed for what it is: a flat-footed Italian-American theme park ride that’s as far from rock ’n’ roll as Newark is from Times Square.

A fundamental question: What on Earth is Clint Eastwood doing directing this movie? Didn’t anyone remember his “singing” in 1969’s “Paint Your Wagon”? Not that “Jersey Boys,” rooted as it is in the urban post-war street corners from whence Frankie Valli and his fellow Seasons came, has to be brought to the screen by an Italian-American filmmaker. But Eastwood, born and raised on the West Coast and a man whose musical tastes run famously to jazz, brings no genuine insight or real, observed life to this film. Like the stage show (whose book writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, wrote the screenplay), it’s a tourist version of “Joisey” that trades in watered-down themes and dialogue borrowed from Scorsese movies and other recognizable sources. When an actor playing the young Joe Pesci — who it turns out was instrumental to the group’s early formation — says “Funny how?,” you just wince.

Coming in at an overlong two hours and 15 minutes, “Jersey Boys” tells the story of how Valli (John Lloyd Young), a nice neighborhood kid originally named Francesco Castelluccio and gifted with a piercing falsetto, joined up with local bad boys Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) as the doo-wop days faded into the early rock era in the late 1950s. With the addition of keyboardist-songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and the mentorship of producer Bob Crewe (played by Mike Doyle with extra swish so Grandma won’t miss that he’s gay), the Four Seasons cranked out a series of Number One hits as catchy as they were irritating. “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Dawn (Go Away)” — good luck getting any of those songs out of your head.

Despite being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the group always owed more to pre-rock pop: Sinatra, vocal harmony groups, Italian ballad singing. There isn’t a black musician — a black face, really — anywhere near this movie, nor, arguably, should there be. But Gaudio had serious songwriting chops, and later Seasons hits like “Let’s Hang On” and “Working My Way Back to You” are as close to white Motown as the ’60s got.

Yet, perversely, “Jersey Boys” doesn’t seem all that interested in the music. The only actual movie-musical number — the group’s 1975 comeback “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” — comes under the end credits and seems like a botched attempt to import the Broadway staging. The other songs are presented in live performance segments filmed by Eastwood with zero rhythm or visual flair. It’s actually shocking how little this movie swings.

Instead, the main order of business is a generic show business rise-fall-rise drama — how Frankie and Bob wrested control of the Four Seasons away from its early leader, the hotheaded spendthrift Tommy. Like the play, “Jersey Boys” is narrated by the four band members, one after the other, directly to the camera; it’s a “Rashomon” trick that’s meant to illuminate a larger story but that only creates gray areas. How much did the group actually owe to their mentor, Gyp DeCarlo, a local mobster played with courtly spaciness by Christopher Walken? What was the real fate of Valli’s teenage daughter Francine (Freya Tingley)? In this telling, she appears to have died of the ’60s.

To its credit — in theory — “Jersey Boys” has been cast with actors who cut their teeth on the stage version. Lomenda and Bergen played their respective roles in the national tour, but, together with Young, they prove that holding the screen requires different gifts than holding the stage, among them an ability to be one’s character rather then perform it. Of the three, Bergen as Bob Gaudio seems most comfortable with the camera; while Lloyd has that voice — it’s not Valli’s but it’s still powerful enough to stop a charging rhino — he lacks the natural charisma necessary for a close-up.

Piazza, by contrast, has an extensive film and television resume — he plays Lucky Luciano on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” — and whenever Tommy comes to the fore, you feel the movie jolt to life. And Walken, bless his eccentric soul, saves every scene he’s in.

It’s probably cruel to say it, but Eastwood’s best years as a filmmaker may be behind him, so uncertain is “Jersey Boys” in tone as it lurches from year to year, song to song. In a climactic showdown, Lomenda’s Nick — the acknowledged Ringo of the group — finally voices his resentment in a monologue pitched so fiercely over the top that it derails the scene. Then Walken pipes up and with one drily delivered line of dialogue puts the movie back on track.

Behind the familiar hits, “Jersey Boys” is a story about the pressures and rewards of professionalism. Far too little of that has made it into this biopic. It’s just too mediocre to be true.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
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