Al Pacino is one of the most revered and respected actors in Hollywood history, and for good reason. For over forty years, he has graced our screens with his electrifying presence, creating some of the silver screen’s most memorable characters. From the chilling resolve of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Trilogy” to the histrionics of Tony Montana in “Scarface,” from his epic standoff with Robert De Niro in “Heat” to his dogged support of Russell Crowe in “The Insider,” Pacino never fails to charge a movie with passion and energy.
Danny Collins is no exception. Despite being in his mid-seventies, Pacino delivers a livewire performance that immediately draws the viewer into the protagonist’s world. Danny Collins is a rock star that has lived the life of excess and hedonism for decades, reveling in the continued fame and fortune his talent and charisma won him in the 1970s. A fabulous home, as many cars as he likes, private plane, booze, drugs and sell-out crowds wherever he performs, Danny has lived the high life to the full. But when Danny’s manager and closest friend Frank Grubman (fellow “The Insider” alumnus Christopher Plummer) gives him a letter from John Lennon that failed to reach Danny forty years previously, Danny realizes that he has sold out, squandering his musical talent and ambition by performing songs foisted on him by record labels. Therefore, he decides to try and reignite the unique performer that Lennon saw fit to encourage. Remarkably, this part of the plot is based on a true story, as folk singer Steve Tilston received a letter from John Lennon, 34 years after Lennon wrote it in 1971. Beyond that, though, the film is pure invention, as Danny abandons his tour and sets up shop in a New Jersey hotel, where he works on a new song, bowls over the young staff, and flirts with hotel manager Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening, “Ruby Sparks”). Most importantly, he attempts to form a relationship with his estranged son Tom (Bobby Cannavale, “Spy”), along with Tom’s wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner, “Dallas Buyers Club”) and daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg, “The Wolf of Wall Street”).
It is tempting to draw parallels between the aging rocker and the aging actor, but while not all Pacino’s films can be considered classics it would be churlish to say he “sold out” his artistic credentials as Danny clearly sees himself as doing. Pacino has made questionable decisions (“Jack and Jill,” anyone? Good, no one), but he is a far cry from Nicolas Cage or even De Niro (“New Year’s Eve” — why, Bob, why?!). Pacino still makes interesting decisions like his directorial documentaries “Looking For Richard” and “Wilde Salomé,” as well as his continued presence in theater. More importantly, though, Danny Collins is far more than a vanity or redemptive project for the actor. It boasts a superb script from Dan Fogelman, who improves on the promise of earlier scripts such as “Cars,” “Bolt,” “Tangled” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love” in delivering a journey of self-discovery for its protagonist and, indeed, those around him. Danny rediscovers what matters to him in a manner similar to Steve Carell’s Cal in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” while Tom learns to face up to his issues in a similar way to Flynn in “Tangled,” and Fogelman reinvents a joke about dinner invitations from “Cars.” Fogelman also excels as a first time director, managing sequences with the right balance of charm and whimsy as well as more serious subject matter, the redemptive journey of Danny intertwining with the difficulties that Tom faces.
The other characters of the film are also well delightful. As Tom and Samantha, Cannavale and Garner present a relationship that is believable and moving, while the potentially infuriating character of Hope is sweet and adorable, in no small part thanks to Eisenberg’s precocious performance. Bening is wonderful as the spiky Mary, initially repulsed by Danny but subsequently warming towards him. Meanwhile, Plummer gives a brilliantly gruff yet warm performance of someone who is viewing a house of cards tumble down, yet whose loyalty to his friend surpasses his evident frustration. The younger adults are also well drawn, as both Melissa Benoist (“Whiplash”) as Jamie and Josh Peck (“Drillbit Taylor”) as Nicky are starstruck by the presence of Danny, and his coaxing them into a romance is endearing and makes you think you would do the same if a charming, experienced, fabulously rich and famous singer suggested it.
This is central to the charm of Danny Collins. It presents the price of fame without suggesting that it is a terrible burden. The central character and conceit are human, relatable and not overplayed, not least because much of what Danny experiences is absurd and hilarious. Yet through it all, we remain aware of Danny’s sadness, Pacino’s deeply-crevassed face and eyes that veer from lugubrious to sparkling speaking as much as Fogelman’s poignant yet amusing words. The film does not tie everything up, leaving certain plot points unresolved for the audience to make up their own minds. Furthermore, while it is a redemptive story, Danny Collins does not suggest that going back to your roots and reconnecting with your family is a miraculous solution to life’s ills, as Danny’s fears and insecurities, as well as those of the people around him, continue even with the possibility of resolution and redemption. Danny Collins can be seen as a slight, whimsical film with a sharp script and a chance for various fine actors to show of their skills, which is perfectly fine. However, it is also that finest of comedies — one that manages to express a serious idea without laboring the point or compromising the jokes.