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Al Pacino Is the Showstopper in 'Danny Collins'

Al Pacino steals the show as Danny Collins in a feel-good redemption story that also happens to be his best role in many years.

Danny Collins

Director: Dan Fogelman
Cast: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale
Distributor: Universal
US DVD release date: 2015-06-30

Imagine John Lennon wrote you a letter. It’s easy if you try.

That’s essentially the premise for the wholly entertaining Danny Collins.

The film features a genuinely rousing Al Pacino as the titular Danny Collins, an aging rock star sick of performing his old hits for even older audience members. It’s been 30 years since he penned a new song and he’s wildly unhappy despite his fame and fortune. Then, when his manager (Christopher Plummer) uncovers a 40-year-old undelivered fan letter written to Danny by John Lennon, he can’t help but rethink his life; as I imagine you would. While pondering what might have been if he could have taken Lennon up on his offer to discuss music and stardom, Danny embarks on a journey to rediscover songwriting, rethink his priorities, and connect with the family he abandoned.

With his new lease on life, the singer vows to quit touring and actually write the kind of music Lennon would have encouraged, like the Dylan-esque tunes that appeared on the first Danny Collins album. Danny flies to Jersey, checks into a Hilton, rents a baby grand piano, and—most importantly—seeks out Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), the son Danny had after a one-night stand decades ago. Only Tom, now a blue-collar family man, wants nothing to do with him. Meanwhile, Tom’s pregnant wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and their ADHD-afflicted daughter Hope are much more willing to reconcile despite Danny’s neglectful fatherhood.

You think you know what you’re getting into when a lighthearted opening screen reads, "Kind of based on a true story a little bit.” Instead, what follows is modest, charming film about second chances that occasionally sucker punches you with an emotionally authentic moment.

Dan Fogelman, the film’s screenwriter and director, reportedly wrote the lead role with Pacino in mind and it certainly paid off for both of them. The film, now on Blu-ray and DVD, is easily Pacino’s best work since 2002’s Insomnia. Then again, since he’s playing an immensely talented superstar who has been mostly going through the motions for decades, it’s no wonder Pacino shines as Danny Collins.

Additionally, while Danny Collins doesn’t break any new ground, it’s a solid directorial debut for Fogelman, even if the top-notch cast carries the film through its many predictable moments.

When Danny flirts with middle-aged hotel manager Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening), the dialogue isn’t anything special. It isn’t even some of Fogelman’s best work; go to Crazy, Stupid, Love for that. Yet Bening manages to make the awkward giggling at Danny’s attempts at romance all-too watchable. Similarly, you can try to deny Pacino’s charm and banter here, like Mary tries to avoid being swayed by Danny’s efforts, but to do so is hopeless. He has pockets full of charisma. Then there’s the underrated Garner, who isn’t given much to do except furrow her brow or smile with winning optimism, but she too manages to add a tremendous heart and depth in her scenes.

Danny screws up along the course of his redemption story—betraying people’s trust and getting wasted and so forth—but even the bleakest moments in Danny Collins are utterly foreseeable. Not a single viewer will be shocked to see the lead character face self-doubt or see him war with his own ego. Yet, there’s an honesty about how he deals with his son and his past mistakes that makes the whole movie likable. Plus, Fogelman shows some admirable restraint as the closing scenes back off a bit from the over-the-top happy ending Danny was heading toward.

The film’s most dramatic moments are paired with original John Lennon songs from his post-Beatles career, including tracks like “Imagine” and “Instant Karma”. Lennon songs sound good anywhere, and obviously work as a soundtrack given the inciting incident of this movie. But they more than prop up a few scenes, making moments seem abundantly more meaningful.

Meanwhile, in contrast, Danny Collins’ biggest hit “Hey Baby Doll” (which is featured prominently) is an upbeat feel-good number that’s also quite the knock-off of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”. It’s about as far from a John Lennon track as you could get; but it’s supremely suitable for Danny Collins because the song, like the entire film itself, is ultimately predictable yet uplifting and charming.

The Blu-ray version of the movie features two special features: a completely forgettable four-minute-long making of featurette with the cast and a collection of fictional Danny Collins album covers.

You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’d have rather seen Pacino in a “Hey Baby Doll” music video.


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