It’s always those ex-cons who will steal your heart away. Literally.
After Johnny (Al Pacino) gets released from prison following a small, but still effective forgery charge, he quickly lands a job as a short-order cook at a New York diner, where he hopes to not just get his feet back on the ground, but go back to living the kind of fun and exciting life that he was living before he was sent to the clink. And he finds that with waitress Cora (Kate Nelligan), who he actually has something of a brief fling with; while she wants it and expects it to be more, little does Cora know that Johnny wants Cora’s friend and fellow waitress Frankie (Michelle Pfeiffer). Due to a long, checkered history with men, love and relationships, Frankie’s not all that interested in any of the advances Johnny makes towards her. While she finds him charming and handsome, she mostly wants to focus on herself now at this stage in her life, and not worry about somebody else tying her down. But eventually, Frankie gives in and decides to give Johnny a chance after all, which is when the sparks begin to fly and, all of a sudden, Frankie finds herself in something that she may not be able to get herself out of.
You wouldn’t know it or expect it, but Frankie and Johnny will sneak up on ya. While Garry Marshall has never been considered the most subtle director out there, he does something neat and interesting here with Frankie and Johnny in that he just allows for the story to tell itself out, piece by piece, little by little, so that by the end, we not only feel like we got the full story of these people, but also had a nice little slice of life that we may not have been able to get anywhere else. There’s a certain sense that Marshall enjoys these characters just as much as we do, so instead of rushing the plot and making everything seem like it has to go somewhere, Marshall takes a step back, relaxes and allows for everything to just speak for itself.
And also, for Al Pacino to ad-lib his rump off.
But hey, who’s better at ad-libbing and making stuff up on the fly than Al Pacino? Nobody, that’s who! While watching Pacino play around with this character of Johnny, you get the idea that he saw the script, saw it as another romantic-dramedy that women and their mothers will all go out to see, but also saw a sweet paycheck involved, so instead of passing on it, he decided to just have some fun. After all, when you’re as wildly talented as Al Pacino, who is going to tell you what you can and cannot do when it comes to how you approach a role?
Maybe Marshall had an issue with Pacino seeming as if he’s making everything up on the fly here, or maybe he didn’t, but either way, it kind of works. It not only adds a certain level of excitement and personality to this character, but makes him seem a lot odder than the script may have originally made him out to be. So rarely do we see rom-coms, or better yet, movies where one of the leads may not be perfectly sane; while they’re not clinically insane, or tearing at the walls, they’re still a bit loopy and seem as if they’re somewhere else completely. As Johnny, whether intentional or not, Pacino is able to make this seemingly ordinary character have a little bit of a personality that has him go far and beyond just another dude. He’s a bit off, he’s a bit cooky, but because he’s Al Pacino’s, he’s pretty damn fun and sincere, too.
That’s why, whenever he’s together with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Frankie, magic definitely occurs. Pfeiffer is a great actress and saying so isn’t all that ground-breaking, but it truly is great to see her take on a role that could have been so boring and uninteresting, if not given the right amount of tender love and care. Pfeiffer connects with some raw energy within Frankie, where we initially seem a quiet, reserved and seemingly tough girl who doesn’t care about those around her all that much, and doesn’t have any need for a man or love in her life. But as the movie rolls on, we get to know and see more of this character than ever before, and it’s these moments of sweet human emotion that really make Pfeiffer’s performance something great.
And together, yes, Pacino and Pfeiffer are quite solid.
I know I’m putting an awful lot of emphasis on the relationship and the performances between these two stars, but really, that’s all that Frankie and Johnny is – an opportunity to see a romantic-dramedy in which Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer act alongside one another. It’s enjoyable because they’re both great actors and it works as a romance because Marshall pays more attention to the smaller details of these character’s lives and makes us actually feel like we know them, as well as those around them. Even a few brief scenes with the wonderful likes of Nathan Lane and Hector Elizondo, while small in hindsight, do so much in making us feel like we are one step closer to these characters and the world that they’ve created for themselves. Everyone is just a normal, everyday person and it’s believable, as well as charming and breezy.
Sure, the movie gets darker and a lot sadder by the end, but it still works because it goes to show you that you don’t need to force the central romance down our throats to make it work. Sometimes, all you need is a good cast, solid attention to detail, and a believable bit of chemistry that can make it all come together.
Take notes, present-day Garry Marshall.
Consensus: With two great performances from Pfeiffer and Pacino, Frankie and Johnny rises above the usual romantic-dramedy threshold and is a lot funnier, sweeter and emotional.
7.5 / 10