Director: Dan Fogelman
Cast: Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Plummer
MPAA Rating: (for language, drug use and some nudity)
Running Time: 1:46
Release Date: 3/20/15 (limited); 3/27/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 26, 2015
Danny Collins understands something vital about its main character: He is not a good man, but he's not a bad man, either. It might seem simple, but how many movies have we seen about a character who comes across as an unrepentant jerk, only to attempt to achieve total redemption for that characters through a change of heart due to some contrived circumstances? The circumstances here are certainly contrived (The claim that a movie is "based on" or "inspired by" a true story, as it is here, has become meaningless in this regard), and we sense the screenplay by director Dan Fogelman moving in the most obvious direction—toward some apology for the character's lifetime of damaging behavior because he's nice for a small percentage of his life.
It does move in that direction, and it doesn't. That is a very curious and, ultimately, appreciated thing, indeed.
Danny Collins (Al Pacino) is a singer who recorded a few hit songs decades ago, and his punishment for success is to find himself in his twilight years singing to sold-out crowds of people who only want to hear the up-tempo ditty about a guy's "babydoll." Danny's fans have aged along with him. As he carries something barely resembling a tune on stage, the women in his age range and maybe a decade or so younger than him sway their arms in as close to the rhythm as they can manage and shout out the refrain.
He makes plenty of money from these exercises in self-deception—for him, that he's still a rock star, and for his fans, that they're still youthful and vibrant attendees at a rock concert. He has a huge mansion with a pool, a tour bus, a private jet, and plenty of disposable income to keep him intoxicated on alcohol and cocaine, in order to dull the otherwise overwhelming sensation that he stopped mattering a long time ago.
Neither talent nor fame have a sell-by date, but there's definitely one for relevance. Danny has passed his, and it has left him rotted artistically and emotionally.
The first turning point arrives on the event of his 74th birthday. His long-time manager and friend Frank (Christopher Plummer) presents him with a gift: a 40-year-old letter of encouragement from John Lennon to Danny, who, in an interview with a music magazine as his career started to take off, had praised the artist and expressed concern that fame would damage his creativity.
The letter never reached the young up-and-comer, and now, looking back on instead of ahead toward his career, Danny realizes how many opportunities and how much of his life he has wasted. He takes a flight to New Jersey, books a room at a mid-range hotel for an indefinite stay, and decides to try to make amends with his son Tom (Bobby Cannavale), whom Danny hasn't seen since the funeral of Tom's mother.
The film sets us up for a lot of melodrama tinged with cheeky humor, especially when Danny meets Tom's wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner, showing strength in restraint), who's pregnant, and daughter (Giselle Eisenberg), who suffers from ADHD. It's an awkward scene but in a good, honest way. Samantha doesn't want to be rude and wants her husband to have a relationship with his father, but she also knows how deeply Danny's absence has affected Tom. Danny knows that there are limitations to his relationship with the family he never got to know. He avoids mentioning his connection in front of his granddaughter.
For the most part, Fogelman is smart enough to keep the characters' actions away from our expectations. When Tom comes home from work to see his father, the scene unfolds as we anticipate it would, but that comes after a long pause—interrupted by Tom effortlessly calming his hyperactive daughter—of the two men trying to silently determine what needs to be said, realizing that words won't suffice, and then letting loose with whatever sentiments they can muster.
There are decades of anger and regret and unspoken pain and shame in this moment. It's the first time we see it, but it's not the last. The film isn't afraid of the emotions beneath the circumstances. The melodrama arrives, and boy, does it in force, with no less than a touch-and-go romance between Danny and the hotel's manager Mary (a charming Annette Bening), a re-discovery of the song-writing muse, a relapse, and a terminal disease to boot. Even when the screenplay starts offering those melodramatic turns, the film never sacrifices the knowledge that there are people—with fears and doubts and flaws—involved.
There are fine performances here, not the least being Pacino, who's better in the film than he has been in a while. There's a sincere weariness to his performance as Danny, who always seems to suspect that his path toward redemption is always one misstep from finalizing the descent into an unfulfilled life of blue-haired fans and missed chances.
Cannavale is earnest in every moment here, playing a man who knows better than to trust this famous stranger who happens to be his father but, somewhere deep inside, wants to be able to. The most transparent contrivance in forcing these characters together revolves around Tom, but Cannavale plays it with desperate foreboding—hoping for the best but preparing, with dread, for the worst.
It's Danny's story, though, and we think we know where it's heading. We expect the redemption, the forgiveness, the teary scenes of realization and revelation. We don't get them. Instead, Danny Collins wisely and surprisingly finds a middle ground for Danny's transformation. He's not a good man by the end of the film, but he's the best that he can be.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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