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MOVIE REVIEW : Boy Meets Grill, Gets Girl

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Chances are you’ll have a good time with “Frankie & Johnny,” but you won’t respect yourself in the morning. It’s that kind of movie.

More specifically, it’s a Garry Marshall kind of movie, a cute and clever but undemandingly bland piece of business. Starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer as a short-order cook and a waitress who participate in one of the most protracted courtship rituals this side of “Wild Kingdom,” “Frankie & Johnny"(citywide) will simultaneously warm your heart and fry your brain.

Based on “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” a very fine two-character play by Terrence McNally that never left the confines of a New York apartment, this version, also written by McNally, has been aired out considerably. In fact, it begins as far afield as Altoona, Pa., where we first glimpse Frankie attending a family event and Johnny getting out of the local prison.

Cut to New York City, where Frankie is a waitress at the Apollo, a coffee shop over on Ninth Avenue owned by a Greek named Nick (Hector Elizondo). In the door (what a coincidence) walks Johnny, looking for a job as a short-order cook. No sooner does he get it than he begins to look Frankie over with an eye to romance. And so it begins.

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Though he now works in film (his last outing was the sinfully successful “Pretty Woman”) director Marshall spent a good part of his life creating such TV series as “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley.” And though it is the most obvious thing to say, the truth is that “Frankie & Johnny” has the unmistakable flavor of the situation comedy about it.

Not only is New York City depicted as the warmest, friendliest, most romantic city on earth, where (attention Ken Russell) streetwalkers cut their prices for nice guys and the homeless are all on holiday, but the Apollo coffee shop is so heavily populated on both sides of the counter by lovable eccentrics that you half expect the Fonz himself to wander in and order an egg cream to go.

While all the jokes and needling are certainly amusing, with the best lines going to fellow waitresses Kate Nelligan and Jane Morris and Nathan Lane as Frankie’s gay next-door neighbor, they make it increasingly difficult to take the Frankie/Johnny romance as seriously as we are finally expected to.

The hook of this particular relationship is that while Johnny is madly in love and determined not to waste a second of his life pretending otherwise, the once-bitten, twice-shy Frankie believes romance is not for her.

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If he is high on life, she is a teetotaler, and while the winner of this particular argument is not in doubt for a second, Marshall’s glib touch makes the outcome less compelling than it might be.

As for the acting in “Frankie & Johnny” (rated R for language and sensuality), it is also no contest, but not in the way you might suspect. No one would have predicted after seeing “Scarface” eight years ago that should Pacino and Pfeiffer ever team up again, it would be she who gave the superior performance.

Though there was much snippy talk when the cast for “Frankie & Johnny” was announced about how Pfeiffer was too bred-in-the-bones glamorous to play a waitress who’s given up on life, that has proved not to be the case. Makeup, or lack of it, has given her face a flattened, angular, almost plain look, and her realistic yet gently comic performance is a study in empathy and grace. If there is any kind of role this woman cannot play, she hasn’t come across it yet.

Al Pacino is something else again. Once an actor who heedlessly threw himself into roles, he seems to be carefully husbanding his resources here, playing Johnny as if it were a star turn, not a recognizable human being.

Since Johnny must always be pressing his suit against all kinds of odds, his is the more challenging part, but Pacino has such difficulty making the character real that the man seems almost frighteningly obtuse at times, and we sympathize more than we should with her reluctance to get involved with this unswerving maniac. If this mania be love, maybe Frankie’s original dream date of a pizza and a VCR isn’t such a bad idea after all.

‘Frankie & Johnny’

Al Pacino: Johnny

Michelle Pfeiffer: Frankie

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Hector Elizondo: Nick

Nathan Lane: Tim

Kate Nelligan: Cora

Jane Morris: Nedda

Released by Paramount. Director and producer Garry Marshall. Executive producers Alexandra Rose and Charles Mulvehill. Screenplay by Terrence McNally, based on his play. Cinematographer Dante Spinotte. Editors Battle Davis and Jacqueline Cambas. Costumes Roseanna Norton. Music Marvin Hamlisch. Production design Albert Brenner. Art director Carol P. Wood. Set decorator Kathe Klopp. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (language and sensuality).


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