Film review: Danny Collins

Al Pacino in Danny Collins
Al Pacino in Danny Collins
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When Al Pacino was interviewed live on stage at the Clyde Auditorium in Glasgow recently, few people who paid over-the-odds to see him in a not-especially-intimate setting seemed to have anything negative to say about the experience.

Danny Collins (15) 
Directed by: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale
* *

Had they seen Danny Collins, however, they might have noticed the glaring irony of Pacino timing his decision to sing for his supper in this way to coincide with the release of a movie that casts him as a sell-out crooner who indulges in coffers-replenishing greatest hits tours. All the world’s a stage and all that, but the “method” part of method acting is surely supposed to end when production wraps, not begin with the movie’s promotion.

That Pacino can get away with this kind of thing is testament to a remarkable career in which the duds have, until fairly recently, been interspersed with performances that any actor would kill to have on their IMDb page. He’s not Robert De Niro, in other words, but it’s still a shame that Danny Collins isn’t a better vehicle for him to explore what it might mean for an artist to trade youthful integrity for commercial success. There’s certainly enough distance between that type of character and Pacino to have enabled him to do something more nuanced than the caricature embracing schtick screenwriter-turned-debut-director Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love) makes him trade in here.

Supposedly a once-talented folk singer who idolised John Lennon, Danny has morphed into a Neil Diamond-style cabaret act – his skin’s a ridiculous shade of orange, the hair has to be touched up every night, and no one’s bothered to tell him that wearing your shirt unbuttoned past the sternum is not a good look on any man, let alone one approaching 70. Night after night he goes through the motions for the Golden Girls set who grew up with him, but he’s not particularly happy with his considerable lot in life. His poor-little-rich-me wallowing is compounded by an unexpected birthday gift: a never-delivered letter from John Lennon, written to Danny in response to an interview he gave at the start of his career when he was on the cusp of success and terrified that money and success might change him. Containing advice and an invitation to call Lennon and chat, the gift immediately forces Danny to rue the path not taken in his career.

If you’ve heard anything about Danny Collins, it’s probably that it is – in the parlance of the film’s opening credits – “kinda based on a true story a little bit.” British folk singer Steve Tilston did indeed receive a similarly belated letter from Lennon some 30-odd years after it was sent, but the rest of the story is pure Hollywood schmaltz: 
a rich-man-looking-for-redemption tale that’s content to embrace every corny cliché because, like Danny, it’s more interested in putting on 
an easily digestible show than putting in the hard work to actually come up with something original to say.

Not that there aren’t occasional grace notes. Danny’s first instinct upon receiving the letter is to decamp to New Jersey and move into a chain hotel to write new material. This mostly involves Pacino tinkering away at a Steinway, approximating Tom Waits’ husky growl, which really isn’t much fun to endure. But the moment Danny arrives, he starts hitting on hotel manager Mary, a lovely, lively Annette Bening, whose palpable disinterest in the cheese-ball standing before her creates an easy-going repartee that Danny latches onto. Watching Pacino and Bening spark off each other is one of the few things in the movie that doesn’t feel forced, even if Fogelman can’t resist having Danny, ever the self-aware showman, comment on their sparkling banter.

Danny’s real reason for moving to New Jersey, though, is to reconnect with his estranged son, Tom (Bobby Cannevale). The result of a one-night stand with a groupie, Tom has a family of his own and plenty of problems. His wife, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), is in the late stages of a difficult pregnancy and they have a daughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg), who’s a bundle of ADHD afflicted energy. The last thing he wants is some unreliable rich guy he’s never met before walking into his life and showering him with money.

Again, the film manages the odd grace note here, largely thanks to Cannevale’s performance, but Fogelman can’t resist amping up the melodrama by giving Tom a cough he just can’t shake and spinning the film into three-hanky weepie territory, as if to reinforce Danny’s early assertion that “you can’t buy redemption.” But the film’s message is at odds with its resolution because it turns out you can actually buy redemption if you have enough cash, just as you can buy a certain amount of artistic integrity for your phoney movie if you can afford Al Pacino and a soundtrack stuffed with John Lennon songs.