Danny Collins (2015) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, drug use and some nudity
Running Time: 106 min.
Cast: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Garner, Katarina Cas, Giselle Eisenberg, Josh Peck, Melissa Benoist
Director: Dan Fogelman
Screenplay: Dan Fogelman
Review published April 6, 2015
A return to fine form for star Al Pacino (Stand Up Guys, Ocean's Thirteen), who eschews the blustering style he once adopted after his Oscar win in Scent of a Woman to actually play a more defined character of a different sort. Lest we forget, Pacino had once been regarded as the finest actor of a certain generation, so the man has talent, but much of his career of late has been in roles that don't offer much for him to do emotively, so one can almost understand the attempt, even misguided, to make something out of nothing roles.
Inspired, as the intro blurb dictates, only 'kind of' on a true story (it spins a fictitious yarn from a real-life letter written by John Lennon to English folk singer Steve Tilston and music journalist Richard Howell after he read their printed magazine interview in the now-defunct "ZigZag"). Pacino stars as the titular singer, a phenomenally successful performer in the 1970s and 1980s, who has now been riding the coattails of is own fame through highly lucrative tours where he sings all of his back catalog of hits for his legion of older, but still enthusiastic, fans. He has a beautiful house, a fiancée (Cas, The Wolf of Wall Street) half his age, and a manager (Plummer, Hector and the Search for Happiness) who makes sure all of his needs are taken care of in ways he could never have done alone, especially given his dependence on cocaine and alcohol that covers over his growing sensation of artistic irrelevance.
After his "surprise" birthday party, his manager gives Danny a framed letter he recently acquired -- a handwritten note of encouragement and possible mentorship from his idol, John Lennon, written in 1971 -- that would surely have changed the trajectory of his life away from sex, drugs and rock-n-roll to one in which he would stay the songwriter with big dreams he had envisioned himself being when he was young. Affected by the letter over 40 years later, Danny cancels his tour and heads to New Jersey, where he tries to connect with Tom (Cannavale, Annie), the estranged, illegitimate son he never got to meet, who harbors a good deal of anger for him that has never quite dissipated.
Danny Collins is written and directed (his first) by Dan Fogelman (Last Vegas, The Guilt Trip), who gets some very good performances from a nice collection of thespians. Pacino, of course, deservedly will get most of the praise, but Cannavale matches him toe-to-toe, and the movie also will serve as a reminder of the strength of Annette Bening's (Girl Most Likely, Running with Scissors) talent for comedy and drama, and banter, bringing lots of life to a role that could have been just a placeholder, portraying the manager of the Hilton that Danny takes an instant liking to. Giselle Eisenberg (A Most Violent Year) is cute as the ADHD-afflicted granddaughter, who bears no resemblance whatsoever to her parents, and delivers a likeable, energetic turn without being artificially smarter than the norm for her age.
Though there is a certain amount of contrivance afforded the story, Fogelman manages to bend the narrative when needed without breaking it, mostly thanks to the performances, but also by playing things out in an understated way. Certainly, there are many ways in which this story could have gone for shameless, heartstring-tugging moments, but the restraint keeps it all refreshing and believable, despite a plot that asks us to swallow quite a lot of character quirk among a small group of people. Thankfully, we avoid the biggest of the clichés by making Danny Collins a mix of character flaws with character strengths, both in the beginning, and by the end. Traditional storytelling would dictate that he'll be a louse and a jerk at the get-go only to realize the error of his ways in the end, but in Danny Collins, he always has a kind heart, even if his actions are fueled by his own insecurities and ego, but he'll always have those character flaws as well.
While there are uneven moments from time to time, Fogelberg manages to find interesting nuance even through some of his more manufactured plot points, such that the story succeeds through the way it is told more so than the quality of the story itself. Pacino fans, especially those who've all but completely written him off, should take note of the work he does here, which is quite different than anything he's done before, showing that, like Danny Collins himself, he's able to find new range at a late stage in his career, more than merely content to ride on the success he racked up with movie-lovers in the 1970s and 1980s.
©2015 Vince Leo