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Film Romance By the Numbers

'FRANKIE and Johnny" is the kind of movie that makes me feel like a grump. I know many moviegoers will find it great romantic fun, and I agree that Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer give the "ch" words - chemistry and charisma - a unusually energetic spark. I also grant that it's likely to sell countless tickets. But I don't find myself sharing in the merriment. Here's why.First, a rundown of the plot. Frankie is a waitress in a New York City diner. Johnny is an ex-con determined to make good in his new job as cook in the same joint. They fall for each other, but she's reluctant to make a commitment because of difficulties in her past. And that's about it: Boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl, with a few modern twists to give the formula a bit of '90s relevance. The one ingredient that might have lent substance to the story - the discovery of Frankie's past suffering, and how deeply it has scarred her - is unveiled so late that neither the performers nor the filmmakers can develop or explore it. The trouble with "Frankie and Johnny" is that it wants to be considered serious and progressive without veering from the tried-and-true pathways of mass-market entertainment. Garry Marshall, who produced and directed it, has built his career on formulas, designing TV sitcoms like "Laverne & Shirley" and feature films like "Pretty Woman," one of last year's biggest hits. "Frankie and Johnny" is built exactly like a sitcom, with much of the action staged in a single location (the diner) and an array of broadly sketched secondary characters (gay roommate, funny-looking waitress, etc.) popping onto the screen at precisely timed intervals. While there's nothing wrong with sitcoms, it seems to me that paying audiences deserve more ambitious fare, especially at today's ticket prices. There is no reason why feature films should mimic the predictability that's forced on TV shows by the pressure to deliver an easily recognized product every week. Yet many feature filmmakers have voluntarily adopted TV standardization as an economically safe way of molding and marketing their wares. One film teacher I know makes this point by showing three of the "Rocky" films on adjacent video screens and pointing out how fight scenes, love scenes, etc., crop up at the same calculated points in each movie. I like some of the "Rocky" pictures, so it's not the specific content of these films that is a problem. Rather it's the way producers have learned to cannibalize their own successes, extracting their key ingredients and turning them into interchangeable clones of one another. "Frankie and Johnny" is not a sequel or a follow-up, but it has the clockwork construction of a movie inspired by blueprints rather than ideas. Most of the action is prettily photographed romance, peppered with snappy one-liners and subplots that vary the slim story without complicating it. The film's one serious issue (wife battering) gets just enough attention to provide the illusion of "thoughtful, provocative cinema" without actually being thoughtful and provocative. This kind of slipperiness has become a Hollywood staple, and other examples aren't hard to find. "Little Man Tate" sets up a fascinating conflict between opposing points of view on parenthood and schooling, only to dodge the whole issue in a frivolous wish-fulfillment finale. "Regarding Henry" fails to tell us how the hero and his family will survive once he follows his new-found principles by quitting his money-grubbing job. And so forth. Nor is today's theater scene free of this tendency. In fact, "Frankie and Johnny" was written by playwright Terrence McNally, based on his Off-Broadway success "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune." "Frankie and Johnny" has its virtues - attractive stars, a few genuinely clever lines, a couple of nicely edited transition scenes. But the picture as a whole is a wind-up mechanism that smacks more of engineering than of artistry. Deep down, this is an oddly cold movie, spliced together by filmmakers who have learned just which buttons they can push to make us laugh, cry, and buy lots of tickets. It's entertaining, all right. But not very flattering.

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