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‘Frankie & Johnny’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 11, 1991

In "Frankie & Johnny," Al Pacino's a short-order cook. Michelle Pfeiffer's a waitress. Love between them takes its sweet time over the counter.

Actually it just takes up time. Director Garry Marshall delivers a barrage of endearing confrontations, bedroom confessions and wacky supporting characters. But the central affair is a soulless nothing.

Just out of jail for forgery, Pacino (Johnny) lands a job at a Greek restaurant in New York. He falls immediately for attractive, standoffish Pfeiffer (Frankie). She refuses his advances. But, hey, read the title. Things are going to happen. Getting Pfeiffer in the sack, however, is only half the battle. Getting to her heart is the other. Romantically pushy Pacino is already sure he wants marriage and kids. Pfeiffer has serious catching up to do. She has secrets too, the predictable, emotional-scarring kind.

In Terrence McNally's original, two-character play, the stars were Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham -- not exactly calendar models. Their affair was a dirty-mouthed, unglamorous relationship. The play was an extended bedroom dialogue.

Scriptwriter McNally and TV-sitcom veteran Marshall adapt this into an uplifting, ensemble drama. They slap on rubber gloves and clean up. They vacuum every reality dust ball, buff every surface. Prime-time cuteness permeates the movie like an air freshener. People don't speak. They quip. This is "Happy Days" with an apron.

The original Frankie and Johnny discovered that they both came from Allentown, Pa. Not hilarious enough! In the movie, they hail from Altoona! McNally and Marshall render New York as a jokey, urban backdrop where the darndest things happen. When Pacino enters the restaurant for the first time, there's a fender bender behind him. Homeboys cast pennies on police chalk silhouettes.

When lonely Pacino is propositioned by a whore, the movie seems to be taking a turn for the tawdry. Nah, it's just a bluff from the man who directed "Pretty Woman." Pacino leads her up to his room, only to pay her to spoon-sleep. He didn't want sex: He just wanted to be held.

The filmmakers inject their supporting cast with prime-time zaniness. Olive-Oylish Jane Morris, a chain-smoking waitress with the posture of a bridge troll, whine-liners her way through the movie. Kate Nelligan is a sex-starved corker of a waitress who gets first dibs on Pacino. Pfeiffer's bearded neighbor Nathan Lane is essentially the familiar sitcom-girlfriend dressed up in homosexual mannerisms.

Surrounded by these goofy, supportive eccentrics (the equivalent of Snow White's seven dwarfs), the lovers bicker and negotiate their way to romantic Happily-Ever-Afterness. But first, the late-night DJ needs to play that special-request song. Pacino has to learn to yell during climactic moments, while Pfeiffer has to unload that secret. They also have to 'fess up about their real age. Even trite love has its obstacles.

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