The secret of many good romantic movies is that they’re about couples who almost don’t fall in love — who are too naive, selfish, or just plain scared to see that they’re meant for each other. The fun, and the magic, is in watching the blinders come off. In the full-bodied romantic comedy Frankie & Johnny, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Frankie, a Manhattan coffee-shop waitress whose hair hangs down in greasy, indifferent tangles. Al Pacino is Johnny, the boisterous new cook who peeks beneath her depression and sees that she’s the one for him. Frankie has a very pretty face (especially when it frames her smirky, wised-up grin), yet her whole aura is limp, bedraggled; there’s no light radiating from her features. Her sadness, which has grown comfy, like an old bathrobe, seems at first glance a reaction to her job, to hour upon hour spent refilling coffee cups and yelling at the cook for her order of Belgian waffles. As we soon discover, though, she’s been through one too many sour relationships and has shut herself off from men.
Johnny, who’s just served an 18-month prison sentence for forging checks, is lonely too. Yet he’s also a cockeyed optimist, a raspy-voiced charmer who has no pretensions about himself or anyone else. The self-taught, been-around-the-block Johnny takes a forthright pleasure in everything he does, from chopping celery to his latest reading project (yes, it’s Romeo and Juliet). When he starts chasing Frankie, his devilish, grandstanding charm never quite slips over into obnoxiousness, because there’s so much generosity behind it. Johnny doesn’t just want to date. He wants to love, and deeply.
It’s clear from the outset that Frankie & Johnny is going to fall squarely in the tradition of inspirational Hollywood romance — the sort of film in which Boy meets Girl, Boy makes a shameless, life-loving spectacle of himself in order to impress Girl (here, Johnny dances at a party like Zorba the Greek), Girl gets jealous when Boy has a fling with someone else, and so forth. Most of the movie isn’t terribly surprising. Yet Frankie & Johnny gives Pfeiffer and Pacino room to create warm, expansive characters, and it has one element that feels absolutely fresh: It captures the dull romantic ache people can carry around with them for years. The movie is mature enough to understand that love, contrary to our starry-eyed fantasies, often demands a spark of will — that at some point you have to leave your cloister behind and say that, yes, this is the person I’m going to take a chance on.
Director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman) and screenwriter Terrence McNally have reconceived McNally’s celebrated 1987 play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which took place entirely on one set: Frankie’s bedroom. The movie changes things considerably. The coffee shop is now the main place of action, and though it’s brimming with New York bustle, Marshall, whose background is in television, gives it the boisterous family atmosphere of a glorified sitcom, with cooks, waitresses, and regular customers all tossing zingers at each other. Marshall regular Hector Elizondo shows up as the cuddly, father-figurish Nick, perhaps the only middle-aged Greek coffee-shop owner on the planet with a ponytail. And Frankie has been given an affectionate, mildly bitchy gay neighbor (Nathan Lane), who feels a little too much like a cozy stereotype from another era.
With Pfeiffer in the part (the play originally starred the decidedly unglamorous Kathy Bates), the root cause of Frankie’s romantic isolation — it hinges on a destructive relationship from her past — has now been moved front and center. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with casting a beauty like Pfeiffer as an ordinary, lovelorn prole. But the cause-and-effect explanation for Frankie’s loneliness, though believable and even devastating, also feels a little pat. For most of us, romantic misery hardly needs a cause. Pfeiffer, though, gives a fine performance, peeling away Frankie’s fear of intimacy layer by layer. Her final monologue is soft yet lacerating. And Pacino, who starts out amorous and lovably macho, by the end reveals a new, startling tenderness. Even as Pacino’s face has grown weathered, his eyes have remained fiercely alive, like a passionate choirboy’s. What’s touching about the movie — what makes the two stars’ chemistry so right — is that we know that Frankie would never take the plunge if she weren’t with a guy who loved her this much.
Frankie & Johnny could have used more of an edge. When Johnny, early on, goes to bed with the restaurant’s middle-aged-sexpot waitress (Kate Nelligan), she’s astonished by the fact that he doesn’t make a peep during orgasm (a result of his time in prison). Later on, when he’s in bed with Frankie, she encourages him to let go, and he issues forth a comic scream that rocks the hallways. The movie is trying to be ”honest” about sex, but instead it merely seems cute. And why is there barely a line of dialogue about Johnny’s readjustment to life outside prison? Since the movie is trying to be realistic, this softening gloss sticks out. At its best, though, Frankie & Johnny does what any true romantic movie should: It makes the mysterious, push-and-pull alchemy of love seem, once again, worth the effort. B+