"Frankie & Johnny" is a mediocre movie that was made from a wonderful play. Terrence McNally's original, "Frankie and Johnny the Clair de Lune," was terrific because it focused so exclusively upon Johnny's hunger for love and upon Frankie's desper"Frankie & Johnny" is a mediocre movie that was made from a wonderful play. Terrence McNally's original, "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," was terrific because it focused so exclusively upon Johnny's hunger for love and upon Frankie's desperate fear of it. Even the sexual scenes between the two characters -- as well as their contentious bickering -- became metaphors for the battle between the lonely citadels of self-sufficiency.
In transferring his own two-person play about a love affair between short-order cook Johnny (Al Pacino) and waitress Frankie (Michelle Pfeiffer) to the screen, McNally has added a bunch of subsidiary characters -- the folks who also work at the diner and Frankie's friend across the hall from her apartment and his homosexual lover.
None of this works. The writing in the diner scenes has the superficial cleverness of a TV sitcom and even fine supporting performances -- particularly from Kate Nelligan, as a brassy waitress who doesn't like to sleep alone, and from Jane Morris, as the lonely, older woman whom Frankie is afraid of coming to resemble -- really don't move the essentials of the drama along. And the subplot about Frankie's gay friends is pretty tired stuff -- something that's surprising because McNally usually works such material with distinction.
But what really fouls up the movie is Garry Marshall's hackneyed direction. When Frankie and Johnny share their first kiss in a florist shop, doors open to reveal thousands of bouquets. When Frankie looks out from her apartment window, she sees slices of New York life through conveniently uncurtained windows in dTC nearby buildings. One of these vignettes involves a husband who beats his wife. This is supposed to tie into a later revelation about Frankie's fear of love, but it's a red herring. Marshall was clearly trying to make a vital but commercial movie about romance in the Big City on the order of "Moonstruck," but he hasn't got a clue.
The performances are touching. Pacino's Johnny is one of those guys who can never stop coming on; he's a self-taught polymath who overwhelms Frankie with his erudition, his decency and his love. Pfeiffer's Frankie is among the best work she's done. She makes this woman's emotional hesitancy, her sexual hunger and her embarrassment about her lack of education palpably real, evincing the kind of vulnerability that would make anyone's heart go out to her.
A lot has been made of Pfeiffer's performing a role created by an older, less extraordinary-looking actress, Kathy Bates. I have to admit that Pfeiffer's beauty throws the film somewhat off balance.
We must believe that Johnny is obsessed with Frankie because of his inner desire to connect. But even without makeup, Pfeiffer's Frankie is an object of obsession and desire. In trying to make Pfeiffer look less glamorous for the part, the movie merely makes her look more beautiful: The lack of human cosmetic art only emphasizes the superb draftsmanship of nature. We root for Pacino's Johnny to win Pfeiffer's Frankie not only because we want him to find love, but also because we want him to win so exquisite a prize.
'Frankie & Johnny'
Starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino.
Directed by Garry Marshall.
Released by Paramount.