Enter the VOD: Frankie and Johnny Are Married Hilariously Blurs Reality and Fiction

Jim Hemphill touts this underrated gem about a couple putting on the late Terrence McNally’s play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.

Writer-director Michael Pressman’s 2003 comedy Frankie and Johnny Are Married is one of those small miracles of independent filmmaking, a movie of modest scale and resources that ends up containing enough insight, ambition and entertainment value for 10 films with 10 times the budget. Flat-out hilarious from beginning to end, it’s the kind of movie that’s so accessible and so much fun that it’s easy to overlook its sophistication in terms of both the material and its visual execution; deeply personal without a shred of vanity or indulgence, it’s Pressman’s simplest, clearest film and his richest and most rewarding, the culmination of over 25 years of working in and thinking about cinema, theater and television. A sharply observed look at marriage between creative people, an incisive meditation on the tension between work and family, a nuts-and-bolts dissection of a director’s process and neuroses, a painfully accurate account of the struggles of a working actress, a deliciously clever hybrid of reality and fiction that both invites and earns comparison with Curb Your Enthusiasm – it is all these things and more, presented with an unadorned style as difficult to pull off as it is effective and unassuming.

Frankie and Johnny Are Married has also been on my mind since hearing the tragic news that the great playwright Terrence McNally yesterday died of complications due to coronavirus. Frankie and Johnny are Married is loosely – maybe not so loosely, it’s hard to know for sure – based on a period in Pressman’s own life when he and his then-wife, actress Lisa Chess, decided to put their own money into an equity waiver production of McNally’s play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune that would be directed by Pressman with Chess in the role of Frankie. I don’t know how closely the movie adheres to what really went down, but I do know that Pressman ended up having to step in and play Johnny himself after things went south with the actor he originally cast – and that Pressman and Chess lost just about every dime they put into the play. In Frankie and Johnny Are Married, Pressman and Chess play variations on themselves; Michael is a TV producer on Chicago Hope whose job consists of putting out non-stop logistical and creative fires, and Lisa is an actress who spends most of her professional life auditioning for bit parts like “rape victim” that she doesn’t even really want. When they get a tax refund check for $15,000, Michael sees a way to kill two birds with one stone: They can use the money to stage a play that will give Lisa the creative outlet she needs while also allowing the two of them to spend the time together that the demands of Chicago Hope have prohibited.

Michael is initially wary of Lisa’s choice of project given Frankie and Johnny’s frank sex scenes, but he wants to make his wife happy and goes with it, casting their old friend Alan Rosenberg – who promptly proves to be a disaster as both an actor and a friend, sloughing off lines and rehearsals and falling in love, or at least lust, with Lisa. As the play becomes a money pit whose costs far exceed the initial $15,000 outlay, Michael feels more and more pressure to pull it off for the sake of his finances, his marriage, and his artistic pride, and the stakes are so convincingly conveyed that Frankie and Johnny Are Married becomes one of those comedies – like After Hours or Uncut Gems – that’s as nerve-wracking as it is funny. Ultimately Pressman’s film isn’t as dark as either of those movies, but in its own way it’s every bit as alert to the ways in which behavior can be shaped, both positively and negatively, by desperation – and its depiction of how personal obsessions and insecurities both drive and thwart the artistic process is as perceptive as it is hysterical.

Like Pressman and Chess, Rosenberg is playing a sort of heightened version of himself, though he was not the actor in the actual production of Frankie and Johnny that Pressman staged and is, according to the DVD commentary track by him, Pressman and Chess, not at all the narcissist Pressman has written. Frankie and Johnny Are Married encourages the audience to play the fun game of trying to figure out where the moving line between truth and fiction is at any given point in the film, and how closely each individual character resembles their real-life source. One of the movie’s best early scenes, for example, presents Michael trying to talk Mandy Patinkin into leaving his trailer for a Chicago Hope scene the actor refuses to shoot. Patinkin is very, very funny playing himself as a frustrated thespian, and all the documentary details that precede and infuse this scene – the first 10 minutes or so of the movie was all shot in the actual Chicago Hope offices and on its stages – give the viewer the sense that they’re eavesdropping on a private conversation that really happened, even though Patinkin is clearly parodying himself.

Throughout the movie, real-life film and television actors, executives and writers weave in and out of the story and give it a verisimilitude that recalls Altman’s The Player, but with a more accurate and less satirical perspective on the pressures and pleasures of making entertainment for a living. (It’s a testament to Pressman’s skill as a director that every one of the non-actors in the picture, from CBS executive Nina Tassler to writer-producer David E. Kelley, is thoroughly convincing.) Before Frankie and Johnny Are Married ever gets to its core premise, it’s a terrific Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie that captures, as well as any film I’ve ever seen, what it’s really like to be a working producer-director and a working actor; and while the prologue might initially seem amusing but extraneous, the groundwork it lays ultimately pays off big time when Pressman gets into the meat of his and Lisa’s relationship and explores how all of their simmering dissatisfactions and neuroses are exacerbated by the play’s problems.

All of this is expressed not only through the verbal wit of Pressman’s script but by seamlessly integrated blocking and camerawork that’s meticulously designed to give the impression of being tossed off – shot mostly on miniDV in the days before every cell phone had a hi-def camera, the movie has a superficial roughness that gives it the feeling of a documentary, but closer examination reveals a sophisticated interplay between the choreography of the camera and the choreography of the actors. Elaborate long takes abound in which Pressman moves his actors in and out of the mobile camera’s frame with the kind of elegance and confidence that comes from decades of experience on set; the entire film is a clinic in how staging can underline and expand upon the emotional subtext of a scene.

It’s also a masterclass in how to direct in a way that turns one’s economic limitations into an advantage; Frankie and Johnny Are Married is both Pressman’s most modest film in terms of scale and his most fully realized work – the one that operates on the greatest number of levels and shifts tones with the greatest dexterity. Pressman has always been a director of impressive range, from his beginnings in drive-in fare (the proto-Thelma and Louise outlaws-on-the-run comedy The Great Texas Dynamite Chase) and his studio comedies (The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Doctor Detroit) to the L.A. gang drama Boulevard Nights and the exquisitely crafted character study Some Kind of Hero. In Frankie and Johnny Are Married, he applies the lessons learned not only on those films but on hundreds of hours of episodic television (he was a key creative force on Picket Fences and other shows) to distill a broad array of complex emotions and ideas into a ruthlessly compact 95 minutes. Its clarity, concision and depth yield a real treasure of comic storytelling that deserves to be better known than it is – it’s a perfect film that only gets better with age.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.