MOVIE REVIEW: Danny Collins



In the new film "Danny Collins," the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Fogelman ("Tangled," "Bolt," "Fred Claus," "The Guilt Trip," "Crazy, Stupid, Love.," "Last Vegas," and both "Cars" entries), the titular main character played by Al Pacino has a way with conversation that is completely charasmatic and disarming.  His character can uncannily cover up his sleazy flaws, misdeeds, celebrity status, and filthy rich persona with charm, honesty, self-deprecating humor, and the right measure of heartfelt sincerity.  Danny "kills them with kindness," as the expression says, but then backs it up with legitimate follow-through.  This character trait is a masterful creation from Pacino and a pleasure to watch.  It might as well be a microcosm for the entire film.  It too will hide its flaws and charm you to pieces.

In the opening scene of "Danny Collins," we meet Danny as a brand new artist on the scene in 1971 getting interviewed by a rock magazine (a sweet extended cameo from Nick Offerman).  We learn that the guy had a fearful start and artful influences.  He looked humble and above falling down the rabbit hole of rock god sins.  Fast-forward to the present day and that bright-eyed kid taking questions has become exactly what he never intended to be. 

Al Pacino plays the current Danny Collins, an aging rocker who still tours with his old catalog of tired hits and sells out mid-size venues with dedicated, and mostly senior citizen, fans.  Danny is not a living legend like Paul McCartney, but is maybe a tier below that.  Think more along the lines of Neil Diamond or Barry Manilow.  Think more caricature than trailblazer.  Danny is very successful and lives quite well in California with a floozy girlfriend more than half his age (Katarina Cas) and all of the requisite booze and drugs you would expect for a loaded man from that era and lifestyle.  His only true friend is his long-time manager Frank Grubman (Oscar winner Christopher Plummer) who has seen him through thick and thin.

For his birthday, Frank uncovers the most amazing thing as a gift to Danny.  As it turns out, the one and only John Lennon saw and read Danny's 1971 interview for that rock magazine and wrote a handwritten letter to Danny delivered to the magazine editor.  Unearthed after the editor's death forty years later, Frank's find for Danny floors him.  Lennon was his biggest influence and first idol.  Reading Lennon's personal words to the then-young Danny about staying true to himself as an artist over the trappings of fame become a wake-up call.  Danny starts to wonder what might have been different in his life and career had he known of and seen this advice.

The impact of the letter inspires Danny to make serious changes in his late stage of life.  He departs on a self-imposed sabbatical to New Jersey.  Danny shows up at a random Hilton hotel, attempts to hit on the manager (a buttoned up Annette Bening), and books a room indefinitely to reflect and write new songs and material for the first time in decades.  The real reason he chooses New Jersey is to make peace with the local son (Bobby Cannavale), daughter-in-law (Jennifer Garner), and granddaughter (Giselle Eisenberg as the cutest daughter in the whole world) he's never met.  Through each step Danny takes away from the spotlight, he begins to find pieces of the personal and artistic redemption he's looking for.

On the surface, "Danny Collins" is a dressed-up crowd pleaser and vanity picture for Al Pacino.  Inspired by the true story of British folk singer Steve Tilston, those would be the easy labels, especially when backed by a Lennon-centered soundtrack.  Like the main character he plays, Pacino probably needs a nice paycheck like this for playing into his lofty strengths.  He doesn't need any practice playing a cool character like a rock star.  By design, Fogelman's film looks to portray a decadent, yet simple story that seems schmaltzy and predictable.  If you think those things (as I did) going into "Danny Collins," the movie will pleasantly surprise you for its engrossing entertainment and depth.  The balance of charm and poignant dramatic focus will completely catch you off guard.

"Danny Collins" may be schmaltz, but it's schmaltz with the right balance of punch.  This isn't like Fogelman's "Last Vegas" where the geriatric stars have minimal and inconsequential flaws that offer no real adversity for their characters. "Danny Collins" goes at this journey of redemption with wide eyes and an R-rating.  None of those balanced punches are pulled.  There's a bracing honesty from the ensemble performances, particularly from Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale, that we normally don't get to see from them.  We know that Pacino can overact, bluster, and bring out the "Whoo-ah" to camp it up, but he doesn't here.  Cannavale normally only gets to play some stock Italian stereotype, but plays it straight here and gets his meatiest big screen role to date.  Along with timely and worthwhile interaction from Plummer, Bening, and Garner, there's a candid and raw heart that beats throughout the entire film.  

Even as schmaltz, I can't complement "Danny Collins" enough.  It flat out works and hits you.  If we're playing movie metrics, the closest comparison would be last summer's surprise hit "Chef" from Jon Favreau with its similar, yet sweeter take on redemption and creative fulfillment spiced with R-rated flavor and humor.  If you liked "Chef," you might just get into "Danny Collins" the same way.  Unlike "Chef," you might even need a few tissues. 

LESSON #1: THE IMPLICATIONS FROM MISSED CONNECTIONS AND ALTERNATE TRAJECTORIES-- The premise of "Danny Collins" surrounds the main character finding a letter from his personal hero that changes his outlook on life.  I'm not diving towards time travel or Craiglist's missed connections, but that's a heck of a woulda-coulda-shoulda.  Imagine yourself in the same situation.  Picture receiving advice like Danny did from an idol or person you looked up to sooner rather than later.  Would you have led a different life or made different choices?  What you have avoided mistakes?  My guess is that answer would be yes with the right advice from the right person at the right time.

LESSON #2: THE BEAUTY OF BANTER-- There is a sharp and irresistible banter that punctuates this movie.  As alluded to in the introduction, Danny is sharp with conversation and words.  He calls it "patter" and he can't get enough of it with Annette Bening's hotel manager and the other people he meets.  It's a strong personality attribute to have.  Banter can go any direction: nervous, honest, complementary, purposeful, mollifying, conciliatory, humorous, or romantic.  You could have the money, fame, and looks like a rock star or model, but it's your words that resonate and affect those you encounter greater than the exterior.  It starts with sustained conversation.  You don't have to be a poet or linguist with the gift of gab.  You just have to be you, the real and genuine you, with a confidence and willingness to engage the other person in the conversation.  

LESSON #3: PERSONAL REDEMPTION HAS TO COME BEFORE ARTISTIC OR CREATIVE REDEMPTION-- When we meet Danny Collins, he feels like a sham living in a loveless relationship and a recycled career.  He feels unfulfilled personally and professionally.  When inspiration kicks him in the gut and in the pants, he decides to do something about it.  Danny embraces the hills he has to climb to change and earn back that fulfillment.  In doing so, he learns that the personal changes have to come before the creative ones.  I think that rings true for any of us and our own chosen professions or life paths.  Having our personal lives in order leads to greater career success.  I don't think that idea works as effectively the other way around.  The personal improvement has to come before the other.