From the Archive: Frankie and Johnny and The Player

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One week ago, I helped bring the school year to an end at the college generous enough to employ me, thanks to my leadership role with the annual commencement ceremony for graduating students. This made me think back to my own college graduation, two decades (and change) ago. Part of my long goodbye from school involved writing one last movie review column for the student newspaper. I explain what I chose to do in the actual piece I’m transcribing, so I won’t get into the choice here. I will note, however, that I’ve written about both these films in this digital space, hopefully better given the upgrade in skills passing years should provide. More than usual, then, today’s post is an offering for purely posterity’s sake. My last name in the headline should not be interpreted to mean I had some sort of fan following on campus that mandated highlighting my contribution in larger letters. 

Over the course of the year and a half that I’ve been doing movie reviews for The Pointer, I’ve handed out a few raves and an awful lot of pans. There’s certainly a lot of junk that Hollywood studios dump on the public, but there are some real gems in there too. Unfortunately, many of the best films of the past two years I never got a chance to cover in the newspaper (usually due to the intensely brief stay most of these films had in Central Wisconsin). So for the last time I put fingertips to keys to compose for The Pointer I want to take this opportunity to rave about a pair of forgotten treasures, both of which are available on home video.

FRANKIE AND JOHNNY: Released in the fall of 1991, this romantic comedy never attracted the audience it deserverd. The film is warm, funny, and endearing. The film follows the troubled path to romance of two workers in a New York diner. Frankie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the waitress whose rough encounters with relationships have left her wary of love. Johnny (Al Pacino) is the new cook who instantly falls for Frankie. He’s a tender man who’s just been released from prison and is anxiously hoping to rebuild his life. The film also features a first-rate supporting cast, including Kate Nelligan as the saucier waitress Cora, Hector Elizondo as the penny-pinching, Greek owner of the diner, and the vastly underrated Nathan Lane as Frankie’s understanding neighbor.

Many critics carped that Pfeiffer was too pretty to play the lonely waitress, but they’re missing the point. “Frankie and Johnny” is not about people who are too unappealing to find love. “Frankie and Johnny” is about the way people work through loneliness and slowly recover from the pain of being hurt before. Terrence McNally’s splendid script, Garry Marshall’s solid directing, and the cast’s effortless acting relay these things solidly. When Johnny sits in Frankie’s cramped apartment and tells her, “Everything I want is in this room,” you feel his love for her. It’s a moving moment in a film that is a true charmer.

THE PLAYER: Robert Altman’s 1992 masterwork was a favorite of many critics, but was unfairly overlooked at Oscar time, perhaps because people in the movie making business didn’t like the unfavorable portrait it painted of the industry, Tim Robbins plays the lead character, Griffin Mill, with invigorating zest. Mill is a studio executive whose job may be in danger from and up and coming young hot shot (Peter Gallagher, in a sly performance) and who gets uncomfortably close to the murder of an idealistic screenwriter.

The screenplay, by Michael Tolkin, savages the studio heads that would love nothing more than eliminating the truly creative people from the process of making films. The film is darkly funny and terrifically complex, with the added pleasure of being packed with dozens of star cameos to lend the film authenticity in its portrayal of a morally bankrupt Hollywood. It is a supremely funny irony that “The Player” is brimming over with the very richness and daring that its main character would like to see eliminated from movies altogether.

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Posted in Film
One comment on “From the Archive: Frankie and Johnny and The Player
  1. Paul S says:

    Although I typically don’t care for romantic comedies, Frankie and Johnny is quite the exception. It’s a compulsively watchable film (I should know — I’ve seen it a hundred times), and it made for a good Valentine’s Day pick this year. A marvellous movie, with a very heartfelt– and human– romance at the centre of it.

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