Sometimes at the end of an episode of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" I'll wonder why on earth I tolerate the version of Larry David that Larry David plays on the show. I think the answer is that Larry the TV vet doesn't really care whether I like him. His abrasive relationship with the rest of the world -- or the rest of Los Angeles, anyway -- has charm. He's mean, dishonest, cheap, juvenile, confrontational, and enviably selfish. The bad version of that show would feature a needy milquetoast who's eager to make nice and is scared of confrontation. The bad version of that show would be called "Frankie and Johnny Are Married," and the offending TV vet would be Michael Pressman, the producer and director in some way responsible for shows like "The Guardian" and the defunct "Chicago Hope."
Pressman and a few entertainment biz folks, including his wife, the actress Lisa Chess, play themselves, and the resulting movie is a nauseating flight of Hollywood navel-gazing.
We meet Pressman on the set, in the final episodes of "Chicago Hope," where he can be seen massaging the bruised ego of actor Mandy Patinkin. At home, he's a flop, forgetting to pick up medicine for his sick child, ticking off his wife. Sigh: He's married to television, and seemingly at the expense of Lisa's aspirations. Most of her television acting has been on his shows, and she seems resentful of the career wilting in her husband's shadow.
"Eleven years ago," she tells him, "we had dreams of working together in the theater. Now you're in television -- successful and distracted. And I'm struggling and unhappy. That about sums it up." Sums what up? Their marriage? Oh, it doesn't matter. All he does is sit there as she walks off, just in time for what feels like the first of a half dozen commercial breaks.
Like Larry David's show, Pressman's movie is about life after his biggest hit goes off the air. And because Pressman is a mensch who wants to be congratulated for being a mensch, he grants his wife's wish. They use their tax return to fund a stage run of Terrence McNally's two-person show "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune." He'll direct her as Frankie, the budget will balloon, and if you want to know how doomed this production is bound to be, here are two words: Alan Rosenberg. He's the abrasive and conceited costar of TV's "L.A. Law" and "Cybill" and Lisa's only choice to play Johnny. (They did the play together in an acting workshop.)
That Lisa could have had a lot of other actors, yet instantly chooses Rosenberg, who doesn't quite scream "romance," suggests that maybe she's still a little hung up on him. A flash of sex does come across her face, but Pressman doesn't give the movie an ounce of interiority, so it's hard to say what Lisa's feeling. For his part, Rosenberg, who's a blowhard and a diva, is quick to tell Pressman that he has the hots for Lisa. Pressman directs Rosenberg to use his feelings for the character, never telling him, as a reality check, "Hey, buddy, you're already married to the foxy TV actress Marg Helgenberger!"
As things escalate with the increasingly troubled production, then more or less right themselves, "Frankie and Johnny" prompts the burning question: "Who cares?" Yet the movie does break what feels like terrible new ground. It might be the first vanity project within a vanity project.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Frankie and Johnny Are Married
Written and directed by: Michael Pressman
Starring: Lisa Chess, Michael Pressman, Alan Rosenberg, Stephen Tobolowsky
At: Kendall Square, through July 1
Running time: 98 minutes
Rated: R (language including sexual references, brief drug use)