First Time Watch: Frankie and Johnny (1991)

By Christian DiMartino

Garry Marshall, who died in 2016, made a handful of movies that were enjoyable, and what came in-between was usually awful. For every Pretty Woman or Overboard, there were at least two of The Other Sister. A fraction of The Other Sister, one of the most accidentally offensively awful movies in existence, is too much. Marshall’s Frankie and Johnny has the good nature of Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer on his hands, but it also had the potential misfire of Marshall going against it. Luckily, the trio worked together to make a movie that is pretty engaging and often tender.

Frankie and Johnny is another song that I have never heard (referring back to my review of Alice’s Restaurant), but Frankie and Johnny the movie is that rare romantic dramedy that managed to achieve multiple things that few in the genre do. At the center of the film is a love story with characters that are not only likable, but are easy to root for. Their motivations and background are gradually revealed, but throughout it is easy to get a sense for who they are, and why they are. The dilemma at the center of the story is one of human interest, and due to not just the good nature of Pacino and Pfeiffer but also solid character development, their story is one that is consistently involving because these are two people who deserve to be happy, and for once, the audience is left wondering whether it’ll actually be a happy ending. Sounds like a lot of praise for only a 3 star rating. Frankie and Johnny isn’t quite a great movie, but in my eyes, it’s immensely likable.

Pacino and Pfeiffer star in the title roles. Pacino’s Johnny has just been released from prison (he did time for forging checks) and has now taken on a cooking gig at a Greek diner (ran by Marshall regular Hector Elizondo). There he meets Frankie (Pfeiffer), a bit of a loner who pretty much tells Johnny she is not interested. Yeah, like that’ll work. From the moment they meet, Johnny consistently urges her to date him, constantly referring to coincidences that brought them together, and how they are destined for one another.

Johnny is nothing but sweet, but also persistent. Frankie tends to lash out and has a tendency to be vitriolic. Deep down, one can get the sense that she is open to the idea of being with him. Even she knows it, and does display affection. There are many instances though in which she backs out and lashes out at him. The audience knows that, for reasons that are to be determined, she has been through something unshakable, which is why she acts in such a manner. Johnny has his a heartache of his own, too. Just being released from prison, his wife and kids have moved onto a new father, and he can’t bring himself to see them because he sees himself as a failure. So he sees a relationship with Frankie as a final shot at happiness, and she isn’t willing to open her heart to anyone because she’s afraid of having it broken once more.

All of this sounds like it could be corny, yet it somehow never is. Never before has Pacino been this sweet. Some may not buy the performance, but, eh, it’s Al Pacino. Pfeiffer is the one who truly shines though. Supposedly there was a lot of criticism in terms of her casting when the film was released. The film is based on Terrence McNally’s play, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune (the latter part is in reference to the classical Debussy song, which is featured in the final act). During the show’s original run, Frankie was played by Kathy Bates, and people deemed Pfeiffer too beautiful to play someone this tortured. Ah, who cares. Pfeiffer really kills here, in a mood ring of a performance that is among her most underrated works.

Frankie and Johnny is a love story that not only works as entertainment, but it also works because it’s believable. The way in which the conversations flow and the constant shift in emotion. McNally (who penned the script here) has a keen ear for the way people talk, and the way people react. The problem here is one that didn’t even occur to me until the film was over. That being, that the film was over. Much of the film relies on a push and pull factor, in which he tries to pull her in, and she tries to push him in. When the film was over, I was caught off guard for two reasons: one, because of my investment, I hardly checked the runtime, and two, the “climactic” moment of the film didn’t feel much grander than what led up to it. I suppose there is a certain redundancy in the film’s story… but it never really bothered me, because Pfeiffer and Pacino make these characters into fully-fleshed human beings that, like everyone else, deserve happiness.

2 responses to “First Time Watch: Frankie and Johnny (1991)”

  1. Great review of a great film, Al and Michelle are sublime here. I love the final scene with Debussy’s wonderful “Clair de Lune” weaving it all together. I agree that Pfeiffer really kills here. I can never understand people who say she was “too beautiful” to play the role of Frankie. As if someone can’t be beautiful and unfortunate. For me she was totally believable, in the subtle and understated way she conveyed her emotions.


    1. Thank you! I totally agree though. There have been plenty of beautiful, emotionally damaged characters in film, before and after this one. She really kills it here. I actually liked this movie so much that I ordered it on amazon shortly after finishing it

      Liked by 1 person

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