They’re likeable fellas, but not quite good enough

Over the weekend, on a whim, I watched Martin Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece Goodfellas for what must be approaching the 50th time. It isn’t my favourite work by Scorsese (that would probably be either Raging Bull or The King of Comedy), but with its dynamic camera and pacing, it has an irrepressible driving energy that burns through the running time, rendering it his most rewatchable work. 

It appears that Clint Eastwood shares a similar appreciation for Scorsese’s film since he tries, ill-advisedly, to imitate him in his adaptation of the Broadway musical Jersey Boys which chronicles the rise of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons.

Mobsters and Goodfellas
Connections to Goodfellas don’t stop there. Not only does Eastwood’s film exist in a similar time period, featuring Italian Americans who deliver rapid-fire monologues directly to the camera (this is carried from the stage version), but one of the key characters is none other than Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo). He plays the hot-headed Tommy DeVito in Scorsese’s film – a character that (coincidentally?) shares his name with the founder of the Four Season’s earliest incarnation, the Variety Trio.

In the traditional rags to riches mould we watch Tommy DeVito (Piazza), a small-time mobster and aspiring musician, as he forms his band – playing in New Jersey dives and pulling off petty crimes on the side. During this period he decides to allow his barber’s teenage son, Frankie (Young), who is already making waves locally, to try his hand at fronting the band. 

Valli soon wins the admiration of mafia boss Gyp DeCarlo (Walken) and before long Tommy’s friend Joe Pesci introduces them to songwriter Bob Gaudio (Bergen). The chemistry is immediately evident, but as the band’s fame rises, so do Tommy’s debts – a revelation that threatens to break the band apart.

Missing an edge
Michael Lomada as Nick Massi – the self-confessed Ringo of the four – exhibits a nervous energy, betraying an untrained rawness that veers between amateurish awkwardness and occasionally segues into an intense authenticity. During one scene in which he admonishes Tommy for his lack of bathroom hygiene, that nervousness pays off powerfully – but his monologues to the camera are the weakest of the four members’. 
Lomada’s skittish performance highlights the film’s desperate lack of that which Scorsese’s film had in spades –an edge.

Vincent Piazza as Tommy Devito is by far the film’s greatest asset. Known to viewers of HBO’s Scorsese-produced Boardwalk Empire as Lucky Luciano, Piazza shines, bringing to his role an effortless depth, charm and complexity that would have improved the film greatly if the rest of the cast had achieved the same standard.

Al Pacino had long been touted as an ideal choice to play Valli, and while John Lloyd Young, lauded universally for portraying Valli in the Broadway production, impresses in his vocal approximation, he somehow falls short in screen presence and charisma. Young often gives less in dramatic scenes that seem to require more and, consequently, his performance feels flat.

Despite this, and a benign conventionality that teeters into TV movie territory, Eastwood’s film has enough goodwill to carry its considerable running time. A musical epilogue featuring the entire cast (including a dancing Walken) won’t fail to raise a smile.