Ty Burr
May 01, 1992 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Frankie & Johnny

Current Status
In Season
118 minutes
Nathan Lane, Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hector Elizondo, Kate Nelligan
Garry Marshall
Paramount Pictures
Romance, Comedy, Drama

We gave it a B

A videotape of a movie based on an Off Broadway play, Frankie & Johnny is a rare case of reductio ad video, a viewing experience in which medium is so compounded upon medium that meaning leaches out between the gaps. Originally a two-character drama taking place in a dingy Manhattan apartment over the course of one night, Terrence McNally’s acclaimed play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune went through a classic ”opening up” process for its revision to a Hollywood motion picture. It gained big-name stars, a raft of supporting roles, exterior location shooting, and a truckload of background exposition. McNally himself wrote the screenplay, yet none of the refitting helped: Frankie & Johnny failed in movie houses, to the deep shock of an industry that figured the names of Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and director Garry (Pretty Woman) Marshall would provide box office insurance.

Apparently, audiences can smell a talky relationship flick a mile off, no matter who’s starring in it — and no matter how good it is, for Frankie & Johnny is far from being a stinker. It’s thoroughly entertaining, with meaty performances from the two stars. But the filmmakers were so intent on making this story about two hearts colliding in the night ”big” enough to be a hit that they lost much of what was special about the project in the first place.

Frankie is a thirtysomething waitress at a Manhattan greasy spoon; Johnny is the new short-order cook, a charismatic flake with a shady past. When McNally’s play opens (it’s available in paperback and makes for a lovely, quicksilver read), the first sounds we hear are the two making noisy love at the end of their first date. In the following two acts, while waiting for the dawn, they circle warily about each other, he trying to convince her that love is here and worth taking, she torn between desperately wanting to believe him and nervously wanting to call the cops. In a sense, everything the play is about boils down to one exchange — when Frankie says, ”I’m sorry. I’m not good at small talk,” and Johnny volleys back, ”This isn’t small talk. This is enormous talk.” McNally captures the yearnings and resentments of long-term loneliness, without ever condescending to his inarticulate lovers. On the contrary, he makes them funny, decent, and heroic.

It’s important to McNally’s conception that Frankie and Johnny not be physically attractive, and it’s this fact that makes the film of Frankie & Johnny hop the track. So much of Frankie’s armor comes from living in a world that ignores unglamorous people; so much of Johnny’s chivalry comes from his insistence — his honest belief — in her beauty. What gave the Off Broadway production its teeth was the ordinariness of Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh. What a viewer cannot overlook in the movie is Michelle Pfeiffer’s allure, even hidden behind raccoon eyes and dishwater hair. Pfeiffer gives a near flawless performance, but her celebrity stature dogs her: We wait for that evanescent Hollywood moment when she is revealed as her Venus self, and sure enough, it comes. This is hardly Pfeiffer’s fault. If anything, it’s a collusion between a mass audience that expects physical perfection and an industry predicated on delivering it.

There’s another central problem: Crucial to this story’s spell is that it takes place in the magic crucible of one night, what Johnny calls ”this minute, this room, and us.” But what’s feasible on stage looks unforgivably cheap in movies, so Frankie & Johnny takes us back to long before the play’s first act. We see Johnny’s initial day on the job. We see him wooing Frankie, flirting with the customers, having a fling with a tarty coworker (Kate Nelligan) before finally breaking down Frankie’s defenses. We meet Frankie’s gay neighbor (Nathan Lane), Johnny’s friends (Glenn Plummer and Tim Hopper), and many others, and it’s clear that director Garry Marshall, who made his name producing sitcoms like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, is doing what he knows best: surrounding his heroes with lovable kooks.

Ironically, home video effectively neutralizes Frankie & Johnny‘s new ”bigness.” With all those extra cinematic bells and whistles toned down and crammed into a 19-inch small screen, the movie feels more than ever like a situation comedy, albeit one with finely shaded dialogue and first-class acting. We like this couple, and we root for them to get together, but by the time they make it to the end of their first date — the place where the play starts — they somehow matter less. If McNally’s fevered kitchen-sink romanticism is to pierce our hearts, we really need to believe that Frankie and Johnny are the only two people in the world. In this movie, they’re just faces in another movie crowd. B

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