Thursday, February 14, 2019

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: FRANKIE & JOHNNY

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who makes roses out of potatoes.

Rob: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Our All Pacino series continues with 1991’s Frankie & Johnny, the Garry Marshall-helmed romantic comedy that reunites Al Pacino with his Scarface co-star, Michelle Pfeiffer. When Johnny (Pacino) is released from prison after an eighteen month stretch for forgery (remind me that we need to come back to this), he finds work as a short-order cook at a Greek restaurant alongside Frankie (Pfeiffer), a beautiful waitress with whom he becomes immediately infatuated. Frankie rejects his advances, though, as years of trauma and familial drama have left her tortured and cynical. She trusts only co-workers like Cora (Kate Nelligan) and neighbors like Tim (Nathan Lane, playing another swishy ‘90s gay stereotype). But Johnny persists, challenging Frankie to open up and gradually winning her heart.

This was my first viewing of Frankie & Johnny, and I have to admit that I’m finding it a tough nut to crack. I liked it, overall, and while I was a little put off by its tonal shifts and odd pacing and structure (you described it to me in text as “stagey,” and I agree), I found myself charmed by screenwriter Terrence McNally’s wit and the effortlessness of the performances. It’s a warm and homey romantic comedy, if not an entirely successful narrative. It’s a movie world that I really enjoyed living in. That has to count for something, right? Adam, this was a rewatch for you. What did you think of Frankie & Johnny, and what song would you request on a call-in radio show to woo the woman of your dreams?
Adam: Get ready, because I have much to say about this movie. This was my second time watching it (I talked about it once or twice on the podcast) and I really fell under its spell this time. I ordered it on Amazon immediately after it was over. I think the movie is elegant and beautiful, which I’ll get into soon. It’s also maybe the best directed Garry Marshall movie that I’ve seen (I haven’t seen them all, but I’ve seen most of the ones I need to). And we need to talk about the soundtrack. Like I said, there’s a lot I need to say about Frankie & Johnny because it really moved me in a way that only a few movies do each year. But first, to answer your question, you can’t go wrong with “Claire De Lune” by Claude Debussy for a call-in request. That piece of music is narrative shorthand for EMOTION and TENDERNESS. I first encountered it in a film called Tokyo Sonata. It’s a family drama where everything goes wrong for two hours, but the last scene is a boy playing “Claire De Lune” at a piano recital and just from that the audience feels like this family will be okay. It’s a good movie.

We commonly say on the site that a movie feels “made just for me.” I’ll go further than that for Frankie & Johnny. This movie feels made for me right now. It’s a romance between two people who are running out of time for romance. It’s a movie about one person who can only survive by desperately chasing happiness. It’s a movie about another person who has trauma caused by past relationships that they may never get over. Not to sound ridiculous, but I’m Frankie right now and I’m Johnny right now and I have been both off-and-on for 15 years. Patrick beautifully put it once (when we were talking about Silver Linings Playbook, I think) that the movie was working “in the margins” for me that it didn’t necessarily for him. This is also the case with Frankie & Johnny. I joked with you that if I were to have ever become a filmmaker that I’m pretty sure I would have made Garry Marshall movies. He’s a super corny director, but what resonates with me about his best work is that he loves people so much. He’s a brazenly optimistic and compassionate filmmaker. He even wants day players to have their moment. In Frankie & Johnny, there’s that ludicrous beat where Pacino asks Pfeiffer out on a date and two customers turn to each other and one says, “He just asked her out.” There is no reason for this to be in a movie, and you just know that these two women are friends of Garry Marshall’s or something and he wanted them to have that little section for themselves. I used to make fun of that (the execution is still very silly), but now I’m all for it. I’m like Hector Elizondo. I’m just going to keep coming back for more Garry Marshall nonsense. Except his holiday movies. Because never those.

Rob: I was seeing so much of Frankie & Johnny through your eyes, and I think that’s what made the stickier parts feel less important and the exploding-heart parts stand out more. I love what you said about each day player getting their moment; some of my favorite bits of the opening hour are the little smirks and sideline jabs that make the world feel so full and lively. I laughed out loud at so many of the early jokes that I had to pause the film to look up who wrote it before I could move on. That energy and attention to environment softened the frustration I felt that the two leads don’t actually get together until about halfway into the film and that a lot of the romantic “getting to know you” stuff is bouncing off the more severe Michelle Pfeiffer trauma stuff in ways that seem structurally and tonally insane. The two halves are very, very different, but I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing. You care enough about the characters after the first hour that — when the story gets going in the second hour — you’re down for whatever the film throws as you.
I also love what you said about the characters feeling like they’re “running out of time for love” and, while there’s a running joke about Frankie and Johnny lying to each other about their ages, I appreciated that Marshall is treating them like any other pair of romantic leads, even mixing-in a few R-rated moments so that we can appreciate this as a real story for adults. The complexities of their lives are real, but Marshall’s storytelling style gives the characters permission to be damaged and imperfect and still be rom-com heroes. Again, I don’t love the way Frankie and Johnny’s background issues are revealed to the audience (I think they’re rushed and sandwiched between other elements that dull their impact), but that almost makes it more real. Rather than using Hitchcock’s Bomb Under the Table method, where the story builds tension by letting the audience know things the characters don’t, we’re kept in the dark for most of the running time and end up just as surprised by revelations as they are. Frankie drops a bomb on Johnny, and it feels like a bomb was dropped on us, too. Same with Johnny. That’s how it feels when you’re getting to know someone. Dramatic things can come out of nowhere. My heart is really beating my brain on this one.

Adam: The stage play (also by writer Terrence McNally) had Kathy Bates cast as Frankie. She wanted to play the part in the film, too, but Michelle Pfeiffer was cast instead. Some complained at the time along the lines of “Yeah right, like Pfeiffer would ever have trouble finding a man.” Two things about that: 1) I would’ve loved to have seen the stage play with Bates in the lead. I’m thinking the movie might play differently with her in the part and would feel like Marty and 2) What I think people missed at the time about Pfeiffer’s casting is that it works for the type of damaged woman Frankie is. Should Michelle Pfeiffer be desirable in the universe of this movie? Of course, but the fact that she’s attractive really emphasizes how deeply wounded her character is and that this isn’t about physical attractiveness or self-esteem. It’s saying without saying there are other reasons why she is not open to romance.
Pfeiffer is incredible in this movie. I’m just starting to notice how natural and unfussy she is as an actor (she’s always been a tremendous movie star) and her chemistry with Pacino is palpable even if they look unconventional together. The movie has a Rear Window homage where Pfeiffer can see into the apartments across from and around her window. In one, she notices a woman who’s the victim of physical abuse by her spouse. I think the way it’s handled is so brilliant (and a reason why I say this is Garry Marshall’s best directed feature), because we get that even though the abuse Frankie had is in her past, this other couple is a constant reminder for her about the dangers of trying again. When the final moments of the window section play out at the end of the film, it felt for me like such a cathartic moment because it was triumphant for both women. If Bates were in the movie, I think it plays out more as a "finding romance before it’s too late" story only, but with Pfeiffer it allows for a different feel that I think is equally inspiring because it’s about coping with abuse and post-traumatic stress. When Johnny tells Frankie that he knows the pain will never go away but that he’ll be there by her side when it comes back’s just the most romantic thing I think I’ve ever heard.

I really need to read the play. I just bought it on Amazon (sorry, this is not a plug).

What did you think of Al in this movie? I love him in desperate romantic mode like here and Sea of Love.

Rob: Oh, he’s wonderful. For as much as we love the in-charge, grandstanding, Any Given Sunday/Scent of a Woman Al, there’s something about the performances where he’s on his back foot that are so endearing. He’s charming, even if a bit leering (I love that Frankie calls him out on this), and he does that hang-dog thing in a way that many actors can’t. It’s not framed in misery or depression, but through world-weary, dogged optimism. There’s that great moment when Frankie rejects Johnny and, waking up from an epileptic seizure, a restaurant patron asks, “What happened?” “Oh nothing,” Johnny responds, “I just got turned down by some girl.” It hurt, sure, but he’s not deterred. And there’s even room for a joke!
Back to what you said about Pfeiffer: I think it’s very, very important that Frankie & Johnny highlights the emotional complexities of relationship traumas and how they influence the decision to “try again.” So many romantic comedies treat these complexities as speed bumps rather than roadblocks, but not this one. Of course Michelle Pfeiffer can walk outside and get ten dates before noon. The point is that she doesn’t want to. She’s not ready for that kind of naked vulnerability, and for good reasons. Those reasons are treated with the respect they deserve, and even Johnny’s good-natured “ah, come on, get busy living!” attitude isn’t enough to magically change anything. That moment about pain you mentioned is almost the entire thesis of the film.

You mentioned offline that you were a big fan of Kate Nelligan’s free-wheeling waitress character, Cora. Who were some of your other favorite secondary characters?

Adam: I don’t mean to be that guy, but even though Michelle Pfeiffer is the “catch” of the movie, I find Kate Nelligan so luminous here. I don’t really get but I really get it. The performance is great. She’s got that New Yorker theatrical broadness that I adore. What I’m saying is if I were Johnny I would have been asking Frankie the whole time to put in a good word for me with Cora. She’s the only woman I’d be able to see.
The schtick that Nathan Lane has is so bad I enjoy it. I told you over text that it’s like he learned to speak by watching Billy Crystal Oscar monologues. One of my favorite parts of the movie is when Lane quips something at Pfeiffer near the beginning and her reaction is just this silent, open mouth guffaw as if it to say, “I will never find you funny but I find that funny unto itself.” Another performance I liked (it’s VERY stagey) is Jane Morris as Nedda, who is less a person than a Kristen Wiig SNL character mixed with a newspaper cartoon and Goldie McLaughlin as the elderly waitress, Helen, whom Pacino accurately describes as the type of woman whose entire life you know just by looking at her once. I need to rewatch the scene to be sure I saw it right, but I loved the moment where she says goodnight to an imaginary bedfellow. It says volumes about her in a single line of dialogue. Who else? Hector Elizondo of course. He’s great in everything. I could go on and on.

A few other moments I need to call out because I love them so much:

• Everything showing characters and beds. E.G. the montage at the end, the moment I mentioned with Helen, the weird thing with Pacino’s silent climax face, the fact that he asks a prostitute just to spoon him because he’s that lonely.

• I don’t know why, but I also loved the moments where Hector Elizondo is introducing the cashiers at the diner. First, Elizondo is like “Look at this young woman cashier…. she’s lovely.” Then you look at her and you’re like “Wow. She really is lovely.” Then she disappears, and the next cashier is an old woman who (I may have dreamt this) just sweeps the money onto the ground at one point instead of putting it in the register???

• The music is fantastic. We mentioned “Claire De Lune” already, but also they feature “Love Shack” by The B-52s, “What a Fool Believes” by The Doobie Brothers, and Terence Trent D’Arby’s full-throttled rendition of “Frankie and Johnny (A Man and a Woman).” Most importantly, though, they play “Dangerous on the Dance Floor” by Musto de Bones, which was a classic among the Riske kids in 1991 because it’s a song that we were banned from listening to on the radio due to lyrics like “She’s a porno flick on the dance floor.”

• The continuing 1991 trope (carried over from City Slickers) about how no one can set up their VCR. In Frankie & Johnny, it’s especially funny because it consists of guys just holding cables and staring at the back of the player.
Rob: I just have one small issue about Johnny’s short-lived career as a forger. He essentially says that he signed his name to something that didn’t belong to him, learned from it, and never really tried any other illegal activity again. I don’t want to say I need more backstory on that (I don’t), but I would have liked a bit more color on how it affected his present behavior, his failed marriage, and so on. It’s not a plot hole or even anything we really need; it’s just a little shade of the character that would have been nice to explore.

Regardless, this is such a case of a film growing on me after writing about it. I’m glad we got to celebrate Al-entine’s Day with Frankie & Johnny. What are we doing next week?

Adam: With pitchers and catchers reporting for Spring Training, it’s time to bring back our baseball series. First up: Trouble with the Curve, starring Clint Eastwood. It’s nuts and I can’t wait for Rob to watch it. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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