Movie Reviews
3:08 pm
Fri June 20, 2014

A Leap Too Far? 'Venus' And 'Jersey Boys' Bounce From Stage To Screen

Originally published on Mon June 23, 2014 7:07 pm

An intellectual play about sadomasochism, a musical about a '60s pop group, and a pair of famously cinematic directors. There's always going to be a bit of a leap when a play moves from stage to screen — but Roman Polanski's Venus in Fur and Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys leap a little further than usual.

A director is casting a new play at the start of Venus in Fur, and auditions have been ghastly. The play is based on a 19th century novel by bondage fan Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch — we get the term masochism from his last name — and the play's writer/director is convinced he'll never find a sexy leading lady who has both classical training and a brain. Vanda, a very late arrival for the audition, only reinforces his doubts.

Doing vocal exercises, she sounds like a fishwife, and she's dressed dominatrix-style in black leather, where a lacy dress with a bustle would suit the character better. But it turns out she has one of those in her bag. And her voice turns more delicate when she starts speaking the play's lines — from memory, much to the director's surprise. Lines about sexual fantasies involving fur coats and childhood spankings.

Roman Polanski's been making films about psychosexual mind games for decades, and when his opening shot poses his stage director next to a very phallic cactus, you know he's at it again. But there's more going on in the movie Venus in Fur than the male-female power struggle that playwright David Ives put in his original stage script.

He and Polanski adapted it from English to French because Polanski wanted to tweak the film in a personal way by casting a Polanski look-alike, Mathieu Almaric, as the director. The filmmaker even gave Amalric the haircut he himself used to wear. And as Vanda, Polanski cast his own real-life wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner.

So where the play had the stage actress and her director sort of morphing into the characters as they rehearsed, the movie blurs not only those lines, but the ones between the film's creators and the folks on-screen. Factor in the unequal power dynamics in Polanski's off-screen history, and well, let's just say that the sexual tension in Venus in Fur acquires a few specifically Polanski-esque layers.

Clint Eastwood also puts a little of his younger self into Jersey Boys — a black-and-white Rawhide episode is playing on TV at one point, but that's just a joke about the early '60s. As a director, what Eastwood brings to this Broadway smash is a seriousness you don't expect in a musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. He doesn't even start with a song. He starts with a scene that could've been in Goodfellas — a barber's 16-year-old son giving a shave to a local mob boss and, by accident, nearly slicing the guy's throat. The mob boss, happily, is a fan of the kid's throat, or at least the vocals that emanate from it.

The hard work is to find a sound that goes with Frankie's angelic falsetto, and they find it when they team up with a guy who also sings high and clear — and who writes them a song that gets a record producer excited, even over the phone.

Pop stars pretty much overnight, the group then has the usual ups and downs: long tours, broken marriages, money trouble. And where on Broadway each scene leads neatly to a song, in a more realistic movie, there are (perhaps necessarily) going to be arid stretches. Eastwood's got a feel for music (he composed the scores for most of his recent films). But he doesn't have a particular flair for musical staging, so the concert scenes just don't pop. He's better with the backstage stuff, even when dialogue sounds theatrically contrived.

Eastwood's production team rounded up enough vintage cars to capture the look of the '60s, but Jersey Boys is too wrapped up in its boys from Jersey to give you much actual feel for the period. Onstage you expect the tight focus, but on-screen, it's weird that Sinatra's the only outside musician who gets mentioned. No Beach Boys? No Beatles? This is a special Jersey Boys universe crafted specifically for fans — among whom you can pretty clearly count Clint Eastwood.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Moving from stage to screen is always a bit of a leap. And for a couple of new movies, the leap is bigger than usual. One of those movies is based on an intellectual play about sadomasochism, the other on a musical about a 1960s singing group. Both stage shows required serious reimagining for the screen. Critic Bob Mondello says the folks who did that reimagining, Roman Polanski and Clint Eastwood, brought to the task a long history in the movies and in life.

BOB MONDELLO: A director is casting a new play at the start of Roman Polanski's "Venus in Fur," and auditions have been ghastly. The play is based on a 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. We get the term masochism from his last name. And the onscreen writer-director is despairing that he'll ever find a sexy leading lady who has both classical training and a brain. Vanda, a very late arrival for the audition, only reinforces his doubts.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VENUS IN FUR")

EMMANUELLE SEIGNER: (As Vanda, doing vocal exercises).

MONDELLO: Doing vocal exercises, she sounds like a fishwife, and she's dressed dominatrix-style in black leather. For the character, a lacy dress with a bustle would be better. But it turns out she has one of those in her bag. And her voice turns more delicate when she starts speaking the play's lines from memory, much to the director's surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VENUS IN FUR")

SEIGNER: (As Vanda, speaking French).

MONDELLO: Lines about sexual fantasies involving fur coats and childhood spankings. Is the play really about child abuse, she wonders?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VENUS IN FUR")

SEIGNER: (As Vanda, speaking French).

MONDELLO: And he explodes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VENUS IN FUR")

MATHIEU AMALRIC: (As Thomas, yelling in French).

SEIGNER: (As Vanda, speaking French).

MONDELLO: Roman Polanski's been making films about psychosexual mind games for decades and also wrestling with onscreen demons that call up his own history as a Holocaust survivor, say, in "The Pianist." That history, of course, includes his status as a sex offender off-screen. So when the opening shot has the onscreen director standing next to a very phallic cactus, and that onscreen director makes you do a double take because he's a dead ringer for Polanski - even the same haircut - well, let's just say you don't have to dig too deep to make connections, especially with Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski's real-life wife, playing the auditioning actress. The film still centers on the male-female power struggle playwright David Ives put in his original stage script. But where the play had the stage actress and her director sort of morphing into the characters as they rehearsed, the movie blurs those lines and the ones separating the film's creators from the people onscreen. And by the time "Venus In Fur" is done, the sexual tension is Polanski-esque in more ways than you might expect. That sort of thing is not going to happen when Clint Eastwood directs a musical about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERSEY BOYS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: Ahh, ah-ah-ah-ahh. I love you just the way you are.

MONDELLO: Oh, he put a little of his younger self into "Jersey Boys," a black and white "Rawhide" episode playing on TV at one point. But that's just a joke. No, what director Eastwood brings to Broadway's jukebox smash is a seriousness and realism you don't expect. He doesn't even start it with a song. He starts with a scene that could've been in "Goodfellas," a barber's 16-year-old son giving a shave to a local mob boss and, by accident, nearly slicing the guy's throat. The mob boss, happily, is a fan of the kid's throat.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERSEY BOYS")

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: (As Angelo DeCarlo) A voice like yours is a gift from God.

JOHN LLOYD YOUNG: (As Frankie Valli) Sure, Mr. DeCarlo. It's just...

WALKEN: (As Angelo DeCarlo) What?

YOUNG: (As Frankie Valli) I don't know. I just wish things would start to happen.

WALKEN: (As Angelo DeCarlo) Impatient. Don't worry. You work hard, everything follows.

MONDELLO: Everything does follow - pop stardom, then the usual ups and downs, long tours, broken marriages, money trouble. And where on Broadway each scene leads neatly to a song...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERSEY BOYS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: Big girls don't cry...

MONDELLO: In a more realistic movie there are, perhaps necessarily, going to be arid stretches. Eastwood's got a feel for music. He composed the scores for most of his recent films. But he doesn't have a particular flair for musical staging, so the concert scenes don't pop. He's better with the backstage stuff, even when dialogue's theatrically contrived - an argument, for instance, that gets refereed by the group's gay producer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERSEY BOYS")

VINCENT PIAZZA: (As Tommy DeVito) I don't get it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What don't you get, Tommy?

PIAZZA: (As Tommy DeVito) The title, "Walk Like A man." As opposed to what, a woman?

MIKE DOYLE: (As Bob Crewe) Hey. Hey, hey, hey, Ms. Congeniality? It's a metaphor. It's an anthem for every guy who's ever been twisted around a girl's little finger. And if I'm explaining that to you, we're in trouble.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: "Walk Like A Man," take one.

MONDELLO: Eastwood's production team rounded up enough vintage cars to capture the look of the '60s. But "Jersey Boys" is too wrapped up in its boys from jersey to give you much actual feel for the period. Onstage you expect the type-focus, but onscreen it's weird that Sinatra is the only other musician who gets mentioned - no Beach Boys, no Beatles? This "Jersey Boys" universe feels as if it's been crafted as specifically for the group's fans, with Eastwood being fan number one, as Polanski's "Venus In Fur" has been crafted around Polanski, directors bending stage works to purposes cinematic and personal. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JERSEY BOYS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: Ooh woo-ooh-ooh ooh woo-ooh-ooh walk like a man. Oh, how you tried to cut me down...

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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