Garry Marshall once delivered sentimental films that didn't scrimp on substance (The Flamingo Kid, Nothing in Common), but in the past few years he's been content to plunk down cliches and wait for the registers to start ringing. He tapped our tear ducts with Beaches and then assaulted our common sense with Pretty Woman. So why should we give Marshall's working-class romance Frankie & Johnny the time of day? Well, the two obvious reasons are floating in giant letters above the film's title: Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, big enough stars to make this movie an Oscar contender before a single frame has been projected. But a surfeit of talent is no guarantee. Remember Falling in Love, the 1984 Ulu Grosbard film that went down for the count despite Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep? Remember Blind Faith?

Never one to challenge audiences, Marshall opens Frankie & Johnny with an uninspired montage in which Frankie's (Pfeiffer) trip to Altoona for a christening parallels Johnny's (Pacino) release from prison. Cliches and clumsy touches abound, from the annoying inside joke that features Penny Marshall on a magazine cover to the foolish prison-yard antics of another just-released convict. Soon Frankie has boarded the bus to return to New York City and Johnny is on the way as well, having chosen to seek his fortune in the city. They haven't even met, and already we know they're destined for one another.

In New York, Marshall dives into the street-scene with enthusiasm, if not discretion. Black teens pitch pennies into a chalk homicide outline. Rap music and ethnic bravado swell and fade on the soundtrack. At the center of this hearty urban stew stands Nick's Apollo Cafe, where Frankie spends her days waiting tables and jockeying for tips. Nick (Hector Elizondo) and the other waitresses - randy Cora (Kate Nelligan) and ugly-duckling Nedda (comedienne Jane Morris, whose puffy, chinless face gives her the appearance of a living, breathing Lynda Barry cartoon) - are Frankie's only family. At night, when she goes home, she wolfs down ice cream and falls asleep watching TV. It is an existence she claims to prefer, even purchasing a VCR to demonstrate her commitment to the solitary life.

When Johnny shows up at the Apollo to answer an ad for a short-order cook, Frankie's calculated loneliness is disrupted. Fueled by an attraction that becomes a mission - and driven by his half-joking belief that the classic oldie "Frankie and Johnny" (which charted for both Brook Benton and Sam Cooke) has prescribed their involvement - Johnny begins to pursue her tenaciously. She backs away, he draws closer, she sidesteps, he drops on one knee to plead. The courtship dance has begun.

Since the first rumors of this project circulated, critics have carped about the casting of Pfeiffer. How could one of the world's most beautiful women play a downtrodden diner waitress? How could Pfeiffer be expected to shed her luminous aura? But the problems presented by the low-rent nature of the character are less cosmetic than dispositional. Frankie's ambivalence toward her independence, the pain that accompanies her self-imposed exile from dating, these are emotions that Pfeiffer can act but not inhabit. There's a theory about Pfeiffer that holds that she's overcome the superficial spokesmodel casting of her early career (Falling in Love Again, Grease 2) so completely that she is now a performer of unequaled power and depth. That's simply not true, and the more complicated demands of playing this role prove it.

The savior, both for Pfeiffer and for the audience, is Pacino. Though he's clearly in the highest reaches of the Hollywood hierarchy, it's hard to think of another actor who has given excellent performances in mediocre movies with as much consistency. In Bobby Deerfield, in Author! Author!, even opposite Ellen Barkin in the truly awful Sea of Love, Pacino has brought his sunken features and rumpled charm to a variety of roles. And, unlike his contemporary, Robert Redford, Pacino's not the kind of hollowly enigmatic performer who is overwhelmed by powerful material. In 1990 Pacino merely gave the two best performances of the year, as the soul-sick Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Part III and the blustery Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy.

Here the seediness Pacino cultivated in Sea of Love is back in place, but in Johnny it's rendered entirely benign, even attractive. The first night after he's hired on at the Apollo, Johnny heads to midtown to buy himself a prostitute (no, not Julia Roberts). But he doesn't have sex with her; at his request, the two of them just sleep nestled together, an idea so innocent it's kinky. As he courts Frankie, Johnny behaves with the same mix of cockiness and loneliness. When she turns him down for a date, he shows up at the arranged time anyway. At work he assembles a makeshift rose from a celery stalk and a dyed potato.

Since he's limited by Marshall's broad gestures and the uneven writing of Terence McNally (who adapted the script from his own stage play), some of Pacino's work is only typical, such as a scene in which he drives out to the suburbs to see his ex-wife and children and then finds, a la Peter O'Toole's Alan Swann in My Favorite Year, that he cannot leave the car for fear of rejection. But many small touches are masterful, from the way the preoccupied Johnny toys with a lamp pull-cord to his habit of playing along with game shows on TV to advance his intellectual improvement. There's never the sense, as there was with Robert De Niro in Awakenings, that Pacino is showing off. He has amazing restraint and rhythm, almost as if he is directing himself.

Just as Frankie is roused by Johnny, Pfeiffer seems invigorated by Pacino. Her performance becomes more intimate, more carnal, less dependent on superficial tics. The film peaks in the bedroom - a lovemaking session set to Rickie Lee Jones's "It Must Be Love," as well as a scene in which Johnny asks Frankie to drop her robe and allow him to look at her. "Just for fifteen seconds," he pleads. "I just want to see the woman I love, just to know that I can." Frankie objects: "I can't tell when you're serious or playing games." "Both," he answers, "serious games." Frankie eventually agrees to strip, and Pfeiffer elevates her acting wonderfully. She's both smoldering and levelheaded. We need more fairy tales for adults, where sexual etiquette is a real issue and personalities are permitted to keep their sharp edges. And ideally, they'll all have performances like these.

By the middle of the film, Pacino and Pfeiffer are locked in twin-star orbit, and it's up to the supporting performers to, well, support. Nelligan, Morris, and Elizondo (despite a Greek accent that consists of little more than broken syntax) are excellent, and Nathan Lane, who has the film resume of a victim (He Said, She Said, The Lemon Sisters, Joe vs. The Volcano) starts off annoying but improves markedly as Frankie's gay neighbor.

As the performers grow into their roles, the only facet of the film that holds it back (with the exception of Marvin Hamlisch's sickly-sweet score) is the direction. Marshall has a penchant for pointless inserts - the busboy who pops into the coffee shop to chirp, "Nick, I got a cab," the squirrel that darts across a strip of park in superfluous close-up - and in many cases he has just neglected to monitor the continuity. Characters jump from here to there; a face seen in three-quarters suddenly shifts to profile. It's a shame such good performances and solid writing must serve one of the most casually helmed films in recent memory, and the laziness of the Marshall plan finally seems to be a form of disrespect, if not a warning to future collaborators: You can lead a hack to talent, but you can't make him careful.


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