Well, we finally got there: a Clint Eastwood movie that even I, ever the enthusiastic Clint Eastwood apologist, can't pretend is worth a damn. We have in front of us Jersey Boys, a sepulchral adaptation of the 2005 jukebox musical based on the songs of the Four Seasons that has been stripped bare of any life or energy, and it's easily the worst thing the director has signed off on since Blood Work over a decade ago. It's not just because it fails to be a frothy sing-a-long piece of artistic junk food, like the theatrical production - every mom's favorite show of the 2000s - and the fact that Eastwood plainly wanted to make something with more gravity and depth and intensity than that certainly counts in his favor. Still, Jersey Boys was still ultimately and always going to be a Frankie Valli biopic, and for it to have been the best possible version of such a project would have required a director to make the opposite decision at nearly every juncture.

Not that he wasn't going to make those decisions. By this point, eleven years after Mystic River inaugurated the Classicist Auteur phase of his career, the movie he makes are the movies he makes. That means cinematography by Tom Stern in the carefully desaturated-but-not-monochrome palette he and Eastwood have refined over the years; that means editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach that moves with the steady pace of breathing in and out, following a steady pattern between wide and close shots with punctuated establishing shots. This is an aesthetic that has proven nervy and wiry for crime pictures, severe and unforgiving for war pictures, reserved and observational and interrogative for character dramas. And while Jersey Boys is, broadly speaking, a character drama, it's one whose script (by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice, adapting the book they wrote for the stage musical) is shot through with a theatrical flair that would seem to require a bit more pizzazz even if the fact that this is based on the life of one of the zippiest pop groups of the 1960s didn't already suggest that maybe a bit more flair and a bit less angry, muted "this is what fucking poverty in fucking New Jersey looked like - thinned out colors and hard lighting" minimalism. To take just the most obvious example: Brickman & Elice have left in their theatrical gesture of having three of the members of the Four Seasons speak in direct address to the camera. That can work in movies, though not quite as easily as it does onstage; it requires a heightened reality and barreling momentum, though, and those are the exact two things that Eastwood's style most specifically denies the film. So every time one of the band members looks at the camera in the second or two before opening his mouth to deliver another batch of exposition, the effect is less "ooh, we're forming a personal connection!", more "oh Christ, this again".

The story, anyway - with some historical fudging, but that's just how these things go: Frankie Castellucio (John Lloyd Young), 16 years old in Belleville, NJ in 1951, gets wrapped up with the considerably older bad boy Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), while learning to be a hairdresser. Tommy is one of the many, many people who recognises that Frankie's angelic falsetto is his ticket to a Better Life Someplace Else, and decides to join Frankie in getting there, making the boy the lead singer of a group that Tommy has formed with his brother Nicky (Johnny Cannizzaro) and their friend Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). The four of them struggle upwards, with jail terms for everybody but the minor Frankie along the way; eventually Nicky drops out of the picture, and Tommy gets the word from his friend Joey Pesci (Joseph Russo) - the one who'd grow up to become an actor in movies like a better version of this one - that Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), co-writer of the bubblegum hit "Short Shorts", presently looking for work. After some interpersonal wrangling, Frankie convinces Tommy to stop being such a dick about little things, and Bob joins the group. All the pieces are in place - with Frankie having adopted the surname "Valli" for marketing reasons - for the band to start its ascent to the stratosphere, which they do on the back of "Sherry" in 1962, with the help of producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle). Money and fame pour in immediately, but those interpersonal issues haven't gone away, and for some good boys from Jersey, having that much success only makes it easier to get into even bigger trouble than they ever managed to as kids.

I didn't realise the biggest problem with the movie until I typed all that out: the lifespan of the Four Seasons isn't really all that exciting or unique. Certainly, it's no more dramatic a story than the life and career of Ray Charles, whose 2004 biopic Ray is a mediocre sack of crap. Since Brickman, and Elice can't match that film's moderate level of conflict by making the Four Seasons either blind or black, they have to compensate by relying on the songs to give the film shape and energy, and this is basically the reason the stage Jersey Boys exists. For reasons known best to themselves, the filmmakers (it's hard to say for sure if it happened at the writing or production stage) decided that their movie would be a lot better if it didn't have so many damn songs in it, and Eastwood rather petulantly stages those musical numbers that can't be totally eliminated without much flair, or without letting most of the songs play for more than half of their running time. So we're left, especially for the absolutely deadly first half of the movie, with a paint-by-numbers story about some kids trying to hack it in New Jersey, given gloominess but not much insight by Eastwood's aesthetic (points, though, to Deborah Hopper for her costume designs, which look pretty terrific), which replicates the noirish bleakness of Changeling, especially, out of his recent work, without anything in the material that motivates that choice.

We know that he can do this sort of thing right: generically, Jersey Boys is in the same wheelhouse as his 1988 biopic of Charlie "Bird" Parker, Bird, which is among his best films and maybe the best "musician with issues" film ever made. But everything in Jersey Boys falls flat: outside of Christopher Walken in a small role as the head mobster of Belleville, the performances are serviceable but totally without any currents of depth or inner life (and Young, who created the role of Frankie onstage and has an otherworldly ability to replicate Valli's unique singing style, is painfully too old for the role in the first third or more of the film), and the cumulative impact of their choices and mistakes is blunted by the film's complete inability to keep track of time - 19 years pass by in the main body of the plot, but the only indication that this is happening is done in the form of clothes and hair, and it gets in the way of the drama more than once. When Valli's daughters suddenly grow up by leaps and bounds, it's confusing more than its fast-moving or efficient. And the music doesn't give the film nearly enough energy and spunk to overcome its problems, though at least in the second half, with the Four Seasons cranking out hit after hit, there are enough songs flitting across the soundtrack that the movie isn't as much of a dirge as in the early "teenage years in Jersey" material.

I'll say this: the film opens and closes well, beginning with the backing instrumentals from "December, 1963 (Oh What a Night)" that boldly and yet with a kind of cool reserve usher us into the film's world; and ending with a giant production number of the same song, the one and only place where Jersey Boys even pretends that it's a musical, and not a character drama about people who sing. So at least the first and last impressions are solid. But it's a 134-minute film, and that's a fuckton of time for Eastwood to be miles out of his element and the story to dribble its way across the screen with no pleasure, either on its part or on ours. From an auteurist perspective, it's fascinating to see such a distinct style applied with so little regard for what it's doing or if it works, but that fascination never manages to transfer into anything terribly edifying or enjoyable.