'Frankie & Johnny' a modest success

October 15, 1991|By Jay Boyar | Jay Boyar,Orlando Sentinel

Small, trivial things can sometimes add up to large, important ones. That's the message of "Frankie & Johnny," an ingratiating romantic comedy currently playing nationally.

It's only a little thing, for example, that Frankie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Johnny (Al Pacino) have names which, taken together, form the title of a popular song. But trivial though this coincidence is, it's not nothing.

And as Frankie and Johnny get to know each other, the little things start to add up: She's a waitress and he's a cook. Both are from Altoona, Pa. Both are lonely.

Well, maybe that last thing isn't so little.

Based on Terrence McNally's stage play, "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune," this featherweight charmer is an essay about the delicate fabric of love. It was directed by Garry Marshall, who also made last year's most irritating hit, "Pretty Woman."

As a director, Marshall is as pushy as ever, and his intrusive camera work adds nothing to the movie. But stars Pfeiffer and Pacino are such naturally subtle actors (and great camera subjects) that they compensate for Marshall's excesses.

The plot is set in motion when Johnny, who has just served a prison sentence, gets a job at the New York neighborhood restaurant where Frankie works. He's immediately attracted to her and senses that she is drawn to him, too.

But Frankie has been so wounded by past relationships that she resists Johnny's persistent advances . . . for a while. And even after they've made love, their future as a couple is far from certain.

Among Hollywood pundits, much fuss has been made over the fact that an actress as cover-girl lovely as Michelle Pfeiffer was jTC cast in the role of Frankie. The part was played off-Broadway by the rather plain Kathy Bates ("Misery"), and Garry Marshall's first idea for the movie role was his actress/director sister, Penny (whose non-cover-girl face appears in a magazine that Pfeiffer is holding in her first scene).

There's some justice to this complaint, I think: If Frankie were plainer, then Johnny's dogged pursuit of her would be more easily understood as something greater than a superficial attraction. But though Pfeiffer is physically miscast, at least she has a feel for McNally's dialogue, and she knows enough to downplay her character's "cute" quirks. (Frankie bowls, collects elephant figurines, and is strong enough to open jars that men can't.)

Johnny has his quirks, too, and Al Pacino is also wise enough to treat them lightly: The cook learns a new word each day, is obsessed by Shakespeare, makes love silently and plays handball.

Like Pfeiffer, Pacino is a strong sexual presence, which helps to raise the stakes of the relationship.

"Frankie & Johnny" is no big deal, but it has plenty of laughs and it's appealingly romantic.

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