In ‘Danny Collins,’ Pacino and cast hit the high notes — and then some
“Danny Collins” finds Al Pacino in full HOO-ah mode as the fallen rock ’n’ roll god of the title. Remember when Pacino was subtle? Neither do I. Maybe we all need to watch “The Godfather” again, if only for that scene where Michael gazes at his steady hand holding the lighter and sees his future stretching out ahead of him.
Not for the latter-day Al such moments of stillness. “Danny Collins” is schmaltz of a high order, and Pacino’s refusal to say uncle is its guiding principle. So shameless is this movie’s urge to batter you into laughter and tears that you give in, exhausted and maybe even a little grateful.
After a brief scene-setter in 1971 (more about that later), we zip ahead to the modern day, where Danny is a classic-rock legend and living dinosaur. The script by director Dan Fogelman — the writer of “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” (2011) and “The Guilt Trip” (2012) making his behind-the-camera debut — wants us to think his hero is Dylan, but Danny’s probably more like Neil Diamond, since his big hit sounds a lot like “Sweet Caroline.” In any event, he’s famous enough to cause public freak-outs wherever he goes, which Pacino responds to with a smile and a sigh; he knows this turf.
Fogelman was inspired by the true story of a little-known British rocker who learned decades too late that John Lennon had written him a letter of encouragement; the letter was sold to a collector by the unscrupulous journalist (hey, now) to whom it was sent. In this cinematic transplant, the hero spins into emotional crisis when his longtime manager (played, oddly enough, by Christopher Plummer) belatedly presents him with the framed Lennon letter. What if Danny had received it at the start of his career? Would he have kept writing original songs instead of falling back on hack songwriters? Would he have avoided becoming a fraud singing oldies to oldsters?
What else can Danny do but cancel his tour and journey to suburban New Jersey to connect with the son he never knew? Go ahead, groan, but “Danny Collins” has a few aces up its sleeve. The first is Bobby Cannavale as the son, Tom Donnelly, a middle-aged construction worker who truly wants nothing to do with the superstar who knocked up his mom after a concert 35 years ago. The second is Annette Bening as Mary Sinclair, the manager of the Woodcliff Lake Hilton, where Danny holes up for an extended stay (to the point of installing a grand piano in his room).
Mary is neatly pressed, divorced, normal; Danny has heard about people like her but hasn’t met one in a while. He also hasn’t met anyone he couldn’t charm into submission, and Mary’s resistance — highly amused, equally firm — is a challenge. Fogelman writes fine banter, light and clever if not actually smart, and it is a joy to see these two pros bat it back and forth over the net. Bening especially leaps at the chance to play a hard-headed woman giving in to romantic footsie while keeping one eye on the exit.
The scenes with the son are a study in acting contrasts, Pacino painting in broad strokes while Cannavale works in fine lines, conveying Tom’s conflicting emotions and working-class pressures with an honesty that’s lovely to see. It’s a honey of a performance, even if the script keeps piling on the complications: a loving wife (Jennifer Garner, also solid) and an adorable little daughter (Giselle Eisenberg), and the daughter has ADHD, and there are further medical complications, and Danny starts writing songs again (what we hear is pretty terrible, actually), and the daughter’s name is Hope, and oy. Just oy.
Danny’s response to his son’s anger is to pull up the tour bus out front, pay for specialized education for the kid, pay for everything. The movie never questions this; what’s stardom and wealth for if you can’t buy people’s love with it? And, anyway, it’s Pacino who’s buying, and he works us like he works the other characters, mugging and weaving like a boxer who only pretends he’s a clown, just before he sucker-punches you in the aorta.
“Danny Collins” leaves absolutely nothing to chance. The cast is full of sharp little turns by Melissa Benoist — the girlfriend in “Whiplash” and a future Supergirl — and Josh Peck and Katarina Cas, the latter playing Danny’s bubblehead user of a fiancée. The soundtrack is wall-to-wall Lennon (Yoko apparently gave her blessing and, more crucially, a discount on the music rights). Beloved chestnuts like “Imagine,” “Cold Turkey,” and “Working Class Hero” impart a nostalgia the movie doesn’t really deserve.
And there’s that opening flashback, in which the shy young Danny is interviewed by the traitorous rock journalist (Nick Offerman under heavy hair). Fogelman must have known he was up against the collective memories of a generation of moviegoers, and he cast an unknown actor named Davide Donatiello, whose resemblance to the Pacino of 1971 is unearthly. For most of the scene we’re looking at the back of Danny’s head, but then the camera pulls around to let us drink in the beautiful, assured stillness of this young man’s face. And we remember.