DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Film critic, David Edelstein, reviews two movies based on shows he saw on Broadway - the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons musical, "Jersey Boys," directed for the screen by Clint Eastwood and the David Ives play "Venus In Fur," filmed by Roman Polanski.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Many stage-to-film adaptations are either too stage-bound or to opened out, so they lose intensity. But octogenarian directors Clint Eastwood and Roman Polanski get the balance right - at very least, you appreciate the beauty of their sources. Eastwood's film of the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons musical, "Jersey Boys," does have its lapses. The original is in four parts, each narrated by one of the guys, each slant a bit different. Eastwood keeps that format - actors speaking straight to the camera - but doesn't emphasize that their perspectives are different.
You expect a film to give more background, context - in this case, other Italian pop acts like Dion and the Belmonts or The British Invasion. Nope. The show didn't show it, so Eastwood doesn't either. But there's artistry in Eastwood's framing and how the camera gets the swing of the music without fancy editing. The characters breeze in and out.
There's Tommy DeVito, played by Vincent Piazza - volatile gofer, for the ever marvelous Christopher Walken, as a mafia bigwig. It's Tommy, who sees Valli, born Castellucci, as a star. Frankie is played by John Lloyd Young as magnetically cool as on Broadway. Michael Lomenda is Nick Massi, who plays his cards close to the vest. Eric Bergen is Bob Gaudio, composer of hits and the only group member raised in a more affluent milieu. They're good actors - broad, but this isn't subtle material. A third of the way in, the four phone producer, Bob Crewe, played by Mike Doyle and sing the song that will define their style.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERSEY BOYS")
MIKE DOYLE: (As Bob Crewe) Bob Crewe.
JOHN LLOYD YOUNG: (As Frankie Valli) Hey, Crewe.
DOYLE: (As Bob Crewe) Frankie? What are you...
JOHN LLOYD YOUNG: (As Frankie Valli) Yeah. I'm sorry we're late. But listen, we've got something for you, all right?
DOYLE: (As Bob Crewe) Right now?
JOHN LLOYD YOUNG: (As Frankie Valli) No - just listen, just listen. Here we go.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 1: (As character) One, two, three, four.
JOHN LLOYD YOUNG: (As Frankie Valli) (Singing) Sherry. Sherry, baby. Sherry. Sherry, baby.
DOYLE: (As Bob Crewe) Set up the eight track.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 2: (As character) What for?
DOYLE: (As Bob Crewe) We're going to double Frankie's voice. It's going to explode right off the radio.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 2: (As character) Never heard of that before.
DOYLE: (As Bob Crewe) Because it's never been done before.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR 2: (As character) Oh, geeze.
JOHN LLOYD YOUNG: (As Frankie Valli) That's good, right? Right, crew?
DOYLE: (As Bob Crewe) Get over here, now.
JOHN LLOYD YOUNG: (As Frankie Valli) Yeah. We'll be right over.
EDELSTEIN: At the end of "Jersey Boys," after trials and tragedies, Valli says nothing in his life compares to the moment they found their sound under a Jersey streetlight - except that isn't in the movie. It's a huge loss. If there's one thing artist biopics can do, it's dramatize the alchemy of discipline and inspiration. But if "Jersey Boys" has many flaws of oversimplified musical theater, it has so very many of the corny joys.
It's easy to see why Roman Polanski has adapted David Ives's "Venus In Fur." It's the tale of an arrogant writer-director emasculated by an auditioning actress. It offers a juicy role for his wife, Emmanuel Seigner, and an opportunity for him - given his resemblance to actor Mathieu Amalric, who plays the writer - to depict his own comeuppance. It's kinky self-flagellation.
Apart from translating it into French, Polanski sticks to the play. A punkish actress named Vonda arrives late to an empty theater and begs a playwright, Thomas, to let her read for the part of Vanda - some coincidence - in a theatrical version of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella, "Venus In Furs" - from which was derived the term masochism. What follows is all mad switchback dramatic curves. Vonda knows the script better than her early babbling suggests. And between readings so assured they leave the writer open-mouthed, she goes on the attack. She says the character, the narrator's mistress, who's compelled to treat him like a slave is a male projection that overestimates women's power and accounts for the misogyny that keeps women down.
The play is a goof on feminist deconstruction, on the male artist's terror of impotence. And like much of Ives work, it's proof that parity can rise to the level of art. Clinching the case on the New York stage was actress Nina Arianda, who negotiated Vonda's fantastical transitions without breaking a sweat. Emanuelle Seigner works hard to earn her pedestal. And that's the rub. Fine as she is, you see her sweat.
Amalric is more convincing but too hang-dog. I miss the erotic pas de deux I saw on stage. Still, the dialogue is savory, the direction, delicious. The playwright is framed like Benjamin in "The Graduate" - puny, warped by female flesh. Every camera movement evokes his dwindling power and Vonda's seizing of the space. Polanski brings a horror buff's glee to tracking shots that open and close the movie, taking us into and out of the theater as if it's a crypt. "Venus In Fur" is like a tongue-in-cheek feminist literary seminar with a wonderful dash of the macabre.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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