For years, we’ve suffered the indignity of watching Robert De Niro attempt to redefine his career by committing to comedy rather than that “acting” thing he helped revolutionize. His forever linked contemporary Al Pacino, meanwhile, decided to give up subtle acting in favor of screaming all his dialogue, convinced that the best performances are the ones with the most acting. That was hard to watch too, but at least Pacino didn’t suddenly think he was a comedian when he hit pensioner age. Well, at least that was true until Adam Sandler got his hands on big Al. Now Pacino seems to be entering an unfortunate “funny” period in his career and has found a starring role for that delusion in ‘Danny Collins’. God help us all.
The film is based on a true story even though it in no way resembles reality. In 1971, folk musician Steve Tilston admitted in an interview that he was worried about commercial success destroying his artistic ambitions. John Lennon (you know, the Beatle) was moved by the remark and sent Tilston a letter through the magazine, stating that success never spoiled his ambitions, so Tilston needn’t worry. That letter took 34 years to reach Tilston, but by then he’d given up success for art long ago. ‘Danny Collins’, on the other hand, imagines a musician who transformed into a flashy, flailing, empty joke during the decades it took for him to receive his Lennon letter, so it’s reason enough for him to finally change his life for the better.
Pacino plays Collins (obviously) as the worst and most embarrassing crooner imaginable, one who doesn’t mind the complete moral and artistic bankruptcy of his life because it affords him a lifestyle too full of cocaine and trophy wives to notice. The long overdue Lennon later changes all that, of course. He tells his manager (Christopher Plummer in a series of silly hats) that it’s time for him to get serious. He leaves all the gawdy crap behind, checks into a cheap hotel in Jersey with a piano, starts writing songs from his heart, flirts with the age-appropriate hotel manager (Annette Bening), and finally connects with the estranged son he never met (Bobby Cannavale).
It doesn’t play out like the fantasy in his head, though. The hotel manager initially balks at Danny’s charms and the son doesn’t even want to speak with his long lost pappy, even though his wife (Jennifer Garner) and ADD-addled daughter seem to like him. Yep, it’s going to be a tough run of life lessons for good old Danny Collins – the kind that will humble a man enough to seem appealing to Annette Bening. (Score!) What’s that? Cannavale secretly has a type of cancer that only a superstar musician could casually afford to treat? Double score!
There’s a cute idea at the center of ‘Danny Collins’, but it never really develops into any other adjectives beyond “cute.” The film marks the directorial debut of Dan Fogelman, a screenwriter who has made a mint off conventionally commercial scripts like ‘Cars’, ‘The Guilt Trip’ and ‘Last Vegas’. He’s not a man of bold new ideas or searing subtext. He comes up with easy studio comedy pitches and then gives the executives all the story beats they’d want without any artistic fuss.
There are many strange and twisted ways the set-up of this story could evolve into a compelling movie about disconnected showbiz loonies struggling to fit back into a world they left behind roughly 225 pounds of cocaine ago, but Fogelman doesn’t waste time following any of them. Instead, he takes a “So odd it must be true” premise and slowly devolves it into commercial claptrap by following every obvious redemptive character arc plot beat ever conceived. You can actually watch a somewhat clever movie disintegrate into the type of crap lowbrow comedy Disney used to make before your very eyes. For undemanding audiences who never spotted any of Robert McKee’s tiresome “Screenwriting for Dummies” tricks before, I suppose that will make ‘Danny Collins’ a crowd-pleaser. For anyone with a sense of story structure, it’s like watching a train fly off the rails in painful slow motion.
The only thing that makes the film somewhat bearable is the overqualified cast. Pacino is moderately subdued by the standards of overblown late-career Pacino. At least he’s playing a character who demands loud and broad strokes for once, so he’s in right the ballpark. The much-missed Bening brings life to a role that should be little more than a supporting love interest and even forces some genuine sparks out of Pacino. Garner continues her career transition from ass-kicking heroine into comforting mom roles with grace. Best of all is Bobby Cannavale, who commits to a two-bit cancer-ridden role like he’s got a shot at an Oscar and proves once again that he’s one of the most undervalued actors of his generation.
Thanks to the valiant efforts of these talented actors (and others like Plummer and a cameo from Nick Offerman), ‘Danny Collins’ proves to be a far less painful slog than it has any right to be. This movie isn’t nearly as bad as you’d think. That’s not much of a compliment, sure. But it’s still much more than anyone could have expected out of a glossy comedy starring Al Pacino as an out of touch crooner. The flick still shouldn’t have been made, but at least those who watch it by mistake will do so as painlessly as possible.