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** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Garry Marshall

With Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Frankie & Johnny is about the difficult courtship of two working people who, though they work side by side eight hours at a time, cannot quite manage to communicate. If the idea sounds familiar, it should. Though based on an original play by Terrence McNally (who also wrote the screenplay), the movie echoes the plot of innumerable romantic films, probably the best and best-known of which is Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner.

Elevated company indeed, and no surprise that director Garry Marshall sought it out. The former television-sitcom producer (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley) became a director in 1982 with Young Doctors in Love and an apprentice auteur with the semiautobiographical The Flamingo Kid in 1984. Since then he has sought out increasingly traditional romantic material. This process reached some kind of pop culmination with last year’s megahit Pretty Woman, a Pygmalion fantasy about a love affair between a prostitute and a millionaire.

For all its popularity, Pretty Woman was a disturbing film, since it accepted, even promoted, the notion that prostitution is an apt training ground for a woman who wants to be a properly supportive wife or lover. Marshall bridled at the suggestion that he was making any such claim, and insisted that anyone who could say such a thing was missing the fairy-tale aspect of his love story.

When people start talking about fantasy elements in romance, the magic they are ultimately referring to is the transformational power of love, the way two people can manage to change themselves and the world around them into something somehow mysteriously better. Marshall was probably being honest when he said the movie was about the interior change of his streetwalker heroine, even though all she does is trade her gaudy hooker getups for Beverly Hills togs. Appearances count for a lot in Marshall’s world, and an evening dress can easily be a signal of deep spiritual tranformation. But it doesn’t much matter how nice the clothes are if the person wearing them isn’t a looker.

In Frankie & Johnny’s milieu, a Manhattan diner called the Apollo, fancy dress is automatically precluded. No millionaires wander in looking for a blue-plate special, no one is likely to have a sickly rich uncle hiding in the family tree. So all that really matters is how beautiful you are. This is one restaurant where physiognomy is fate.

Now in even the most complex movie romances, the central lovers are likely to be more beautiful than everyone else. After all, no one wants to watch a couple of pug uglies nuzzle on a 50-foot screen for an hour and a half. However, one look at a character is not supposed to tell you all you need to know about him or her–and that is the central problem wih Frankie & Johnny. Each and every figure is not just a caricature, but a quick-sketch caricature, a few broad strokes, one or two highlights. No one changes, no one is transformed into something better or even different. People simply accept the rewards, or sanctions, that their appearances have ordained. When the movie reaches for a mood of peaceful loving at its climax, it is tinny, ersatz. It is kitsch.

Before they meet, Frankie and Johnny are a couple of sad cases. Johnny (Al Pacino) has just been released from an 18-month stretch in prison when he wanders into the Apollo looking for work. Frankie (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s a waitress there, has already expressed a deep, unnameable unhappiness in an opening scene when she visits her mother’s home in Pennsylvania. It is this vague sadness that provides the main stumbling block to fulfillment.

The very first time Frankie and a determined Johnny get face-to-face, he tells her that by virtue of their names they must be destined to be together. This confrontation comes over the body of a diner customer who has fallen to the floor in an epileptic fit, a typical example of the film’s unremitting cleverness. Marshall is a master of seriocomic incidents, and the movie is chock-full of self-consciously colorful contexts that show off the stars–such as the diner’s grubby decor and crowds of chowing character actors, which provide a grungy backdrop that enhances the beauty of the lovers.

In its stage incarnation, the diner may well have served as a good way to bring the world at large into the action to remind the lovers of their depressed social position as they hesitatingly move toward one another. In the movie, the diner becomes a good way to keep the rest of the world out, to prevent the lovers from being interfered with. The people they work with are sitcom types: Nick (Hector Elizondo), the garrulous but nice Greek boss; Cora (Kate Nelligan), the slutty waitress; Nedda (Jane Morris), the cranky old waitress; Tino (Greg Lewis), the phone-hogging Latino lover boy. Each of these characters serves either as a negative example of what Frankie and Johnny might, but should not, become, or as a bathetic reminder of love’s rewards. Cora is featured in a consummated but unsatisfactory erotic episode with Johnny, which demonstrates that he is both virile and sensitive.

Frankie also has a gay next-door neighbor, Tim (Nathan Lane), who provides a shoulder to cry on and who occasionally referees the couple’s fights. These mysterious flare-ups occur after moments of intimacy between the two, when Frankie suddenly pulls back, refuses to discuss what’s bothering her, and attacks Johnny for some minor transgression. Again, these emotional set-tos are cleverly mounted–one at a bowling alley is a perfect set piece–but ultimately empty.

Marshall’s frequent tracking shots are smooth and graceful. But instead of wandering through a wider world and just happening upon Frankie or Johnny, these often complicated shots simply contrast the usual gallery of near-grotesques (never anybody too extreme or shocking to upset the mood) with a charming picture of the protagonists.

Among the changes made in transferring the play to the screen, Frankie, who was played by Kathy Bates on Broadway, is transformed from a dowdy, overweight character into, well, Michelle Pfeiffer. No amount of theatrical dinge can obscure her often stunning beauty–though because she is also a very good actress, the complaints wrested from her by a persistent Johnny about her suffering at the hands of men do sound plausible. But to add unattractiveness to Frankie’s burdens would have complicated the film. First of all, one might have had to wonder why Johnny was pursuing such a loser. But more to the point, if Frankie were ugly, she would have to have something else going for her. And in the cramped shorthand of this film, there’s no room for such complexity. All that this dour and sullen Frankie has is her looks–even though Johnny keeps saying there’s some deeper, nearly mystical reason for his love.

Johnny isn’t exactly complex himself. The love of books he picked up in prison is not pursued in any serious way, beyond giving him some special bits of knowledge that spruce up a scene now and then. For example, Frankie has a large collection of stuffed elephants, and Johnny knows that for good luck they should be facing the window. Marshall cleverly weaves this bit into the finale, but it doesn’t mean much. It’s a nice touch, but it’s a comic craftsman’s handiwork that draws more attention to itself than it deserves.

But this is more than just an irritating movie; it’s a disappointing one. Marshall’s ambitions are entirely praiseworthy. His belief in romance seems legitimate enough. The movie’s final montage of its characters greeting a new dawn in various combinations and a range of emotional states is not at all cynical. Only a filmmaker who believes that being with someone you love is a critical part of life could have made it. Unfortunately Marshall relies solely on artifice to get that across.

Frankie’s rebuff is nearly complete when Johnny visits her apartment and asks a radio DJ to play Debussy’s evocative “Claire de lune.” (Even at this climactic moment, Marshall can’t resist a glib aside, playing the DJ’s rich baritone voice off against a late insert shot of him in his studio, overweight and puffing a well-chewed cigar.) The music floods the scene, working its magic on the characters. And us too, which is more the point.

Like most of Marshall’s other films, Frankie & Johnny is photographed in particularly bright color, something like the flashy Technicolor used in musicals of the 40s and early 50s. It has a metamorphosing quality that helps make the characters seem more vivid, larger than life. But they’re not more than real; they’re less than real.