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Jersey Boys

Clint Eastwood may not seem like the best person to direct a musical. When you look back at his filmography, even in recent years with films like “Gran Torino,” you see mostly gruff, no-nonsense characters who, if asked, would likely tell you they wouldn’t be caught dead at a musical. Of course, his onscreen personas don’t necessarily reflect his true self, but it’s a tough sell nonetheless. However, he shows that he still has some aces up his sleeve with “Jersey Boys,” an adaptation of the hit Broadway jukebox musical of the same name. While it has more than its fair share of problems, Eastwood is surprisingly adept at putting music to screen. Granted, this isn’t your typical musical with grand choreography where people randomly start singing and dancing down the street—the music instead comes organically to the story as it follows the rise and fall of the popular 60s pop band, The Four Seasons—so much of what is shown is small in scale, but that in no way diminishes Eastwood’s steady directorial hand. “Jersey Boys,” while not the rousing success it had the potential to be, is worth seeing all the same.

The film begins in Belleville, New Jersey in 1951. As Tommy (Vincent Piazza) puts it, it’s a town with only three ways out: joining the Army and getting killed, joining the mob and getting killed or getting famous. He’s a part of a small band in town with his buddy, Nick (Michael Lomenda), and plans on getting out via the latter means. After hearing Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) sing, he recruits him into the band. Before long, Frankie’s voice attracts some attention, including from Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a songwriter who just knows he has to write for it. It isn’t long before they find themselves thrust into the spotlight, but fame has its price; personalities clash, heated exchanges take precedent over calm conversation and they eventually find themselves in an undesirable situation.

The first thing more discerning viewers might notice when sitting down to watch “Jersey Boys” is its color palette. The film, at least at first, is washed of bright colors. Varying shades of black and grey are most prominent, a nice touch that nails the setting of the pre-70s tie dye hippy era. While certain colors still poke their heads in now and then, they look so strange next to the more pronounced blacks and greys that it almost looks like an early black and white to color Technicolor conversion. The film gets brighter as the film goes on, paralleling the success of the band members, which adds an interesting thematic and visual layer that many films these days don’t possess.

Aside from some unconvincing green screen shots, “Jersey Boys” looks the part; it’s in its story that it falters. The film mixes drama and humor, but the two parts aren’t created equal. Despite primarily being a drama, the jokes land more effectively, while its more somber moments collapse under a story that doesn’t properly set them up. Take a late movie moment where one of Frankie’s children goes missing for a couple days, for instance. When he finally catches up to her, the heartfelt talk they share and the would-be sadder moments after resonate with a resounding thud, as the film fails to make that daughter a real character, featuring her in perhaps only one minor earlier scene. Similar issues arise with Frankie’s wife, Mary (Renee Marino), who is largely overlooked after the beginning of the film, to the point that when she popped up later, I had forgotten she was even in it.

“Jersey Boys” fares better when it focuses on the up and down relationship between the boys in the band. Pretty much all of them are unlikable—they’re abrasive, rude and more than a little bit sexist—which may turn some people away, but those unlikable personalities are the point of the movie, as it’s their behavior and arrogance that ultimately lead to their destruction. Nevertheless, some of their recklessness is so reminiscent of imbecilic television personalities that, by the end of the film’s 2 hour 15 minute runtime, they can get a bit grating, which is enhanced by a story that gets progressively heavy-handed as it goes on. At one point, one of the guys says of a song, “If you goose it up too much, it gets cheesy.” It’s an unintentional meta line that describes the narrative path of “Jersey Boys” to a tee.

If you’re in it for the songs, however, you’ll likely enjoy the movie quite a bit, though much of your appreciation for Frankie’s singing will hinge on your tolerance of those high pitched swooners that characterized that musical era. By today’s standards, it sounds a bit silly, but there’s no denying the heart and soul that went into its creation, even if that heart and soul eventually turned to bitterness and contempt. If you’re a fan of the band or grew up in their heyday, “Jersey Boys” will probably work wonders, but even if you’re not and didn’t, there’s still enough here to enjoy, though you’re not likely to remember it for long after.

Jersey Boys receives 3/5


Seven Psychopaths

Black comedies are hard to pull off because it’s extremely difficult to depict graphic, brutal violence and mean for it to be funny. It’s one thing if the violence is over-the-top or tame PG-13 action, but filming executions, assassinations and suicides and expecting the audience to laugh is like throwing in loopy cartoon sound effects over footage of the Holocaust. Somehow, though, Seven Psychopaths manages to do it. Some of the violence is still off-putting (there’s really nothing particularly interesting about watching someone cut their own throat), but the writing is so sharp, the performances are so good and the idea is so kooky that it manages to overcome the genre’s inherent problems. It’s not for everyone, but if there’s a template that needs to be followed for future black comedies, that template is Seven Psychopaths.

Colin Farrell plays Marty, a screenwriter currently in the middle of writing a movie titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem is that’s as far as he’s gotten. He doesn’t even know who these supposed psychopaths will be. Fortunately, he has a friend named Billy, played by Sam Rockwell, a local dognapper who wants to help him write the script. He gives him a number of stories that could detail who these psychopaths will be and even goes so far as to stage crazy and often dangerous events that will hopefully help him out of his bind. Eventually, the story begins to write itself when Billy dognaps a Shih Tzu owned by local gangster Charlie, played by Woody Harrelson, who will stop at nothing to get it back, even if it means killing everybody in his way.

The reason Seven Psychopaths works is because, in a way, it’s an absurdist comedy. It takes a relatively simple idea, one that could be (and has been) used in harmless family films and turns it into something that’s darker than dark. It’s kind of like a boy and his dog movie, except the extent the owner will go to get him back involves handing out bullets rather than flyers. Even if the violence is sometimes too extreme for its own good, the idea is too zany to take seriously, and that’s a good thing. But its absurdity does not mean it isn’t clever. The simple idea eventually balloons into something grandiose and observant, about how art imitates life. Although we never see the finished product of the “Seven Psychopaths” screenplay Marty has written, we know exactly how it plays out because it’s taken from the events we’ve just witnessed. It’s very meta in the sense that it knows it’s a movie and toys with the silly, but admittedly amusing, idea that screenwriters aren’t nerds sitting behind their computer pushing their glasses back onto their face, but rather adventurers who take their own real life experiences and put them on the page, no matter how outrageous they may be.

The best self-referential nod comes when Billy and Hans, played by Christopher Walken, are reading through Marty’s script. They remark on how the woman characters are awful and they either have nothing to do or are killed off five minutes after being introduced, a comment on sexism in the cinema. It doesn’t seem like much at first until you think back on the women characters in the movie who show up and disappear like props. These types of moments are what make Seven Psychopaths so enjoyable, the ones that say, “Yes, we know what we’re doing, so sit back, relax and enjoy.” But the ideas themselves only make up a portion of why the movie works. It’s the delivery of these moments by outstanding actors clearly having a good time that raise the movie to the level it’s at. Walken, the eccentric person he is, nails his role and manages to make the smallest, simplest lines bustle with humor, but it’s Sam Rockwell that shines. As a critic friend of mine commented after the movie was over, he’s one of the great character actors working today and is continually snubbed by the Academy for his brilliant performances. Perhaps this year will be his time to shine.

To expect something truly remarkable, though, would be a mistake. Coming from director Martin McDonagh, who knocked it out of the park with his feature length directorial debut, In Bruges, it’s hard not to get excited, but In Bruges this isn’t. This is funnier and, arguably, more clever, but it’s not as deep or emotional as In Bruges and, at the end of the day, narrative and thematic depth and emotional complexity are more important. Still, it’s not necessarily a criticism to say Seven Pyschopaths isn’t as good as In Bruges. Few movies are. It’s still an uproarious good time and, if dark comedies are your thing, it’s not to be missed.

Seven Psychopaths receives 4/5