'Jersey Boys'

SCREEN TIME: Frankie Vallie (John Lloyd Young) and the Four Seasons debut their soon-to-be hit 'Sherry' on 'American Bandstand.'

Third act troubles mar one of Clint Eastwood's best movies, an adaptation of the hit showbiz musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jersey Boys. Events are rejiggered so that the triumph (the smash "Can't Take My Eyes Off You") can come after sketchily and half-heartedly directed tragedy. It gets hurried and cheap-looking in the finale.

Yet the movie succeeds. Eastwood brings it home with a no-star cast—actually, there is a star: Christopher Walken, Oscar-bound. He's Gyp, a well-mannered mafia don. Watching Walken's jaw tremble with choked tears as he hears Valli sing about mother love, we view not only one of the best actors alive, but also see Eastwood sparing us overpraise for the Four Seasons' music.

The Four Seasons' white doo-wop, inescapable in the 1960s, had an eerie jet-age glaze on it—in these mixes, with the archaic keyboards, you think less about Johnny Ace and all the other black doo-woppers excluded from this picture, and think more about Joe Meek over in the U.K. Sometimes Valli sang like a Theremin. Eastwood stages the other-country quality of the past well. The debut of "Sherry" on American Bandstand is greatly evocative: Valli's rich, chilling wail, the cramped studio blocked by a clunky TV camera, a waxy Dick Clark paralyzed behind his podium.

Valli is played by John Lloyd Young as a man so uncomplicated that he's slightly mysterious: a workaholic who sacrifices himself for his shady partner (Vincent Piazza of Boardwalk Empire). Reprising his Broadway role, Young is compelling, echoing other small-stature powerhouses like Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni. He's instantly likeable, the best face in a movie in which there are very few anachronistic ones. The down side—we don't see enough of the debuting Renee Marino as Valli's tough wife.

Snipers have been describing this as an overlong Behind the Music episode, but it's more like an engrossing oral history of a band's rise and fall, with conflicted perspectives and old hurts. The direct address to the camera works well, sometimes brilliantly. Beyond the Jersey metaphysics, there's something deep and tangy and downbeat here, countering the hysterical ebullience of the tunes. At heart, it's a musical about overwork and debt.

Jersey Boys

R; 134 MIN.

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