Rob: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
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?
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.
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.
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 again...it’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!
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.
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.
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.