“Danny Collins” is the third Al Pacino movie I watched in this year, and it is easily the best of the bunch. While other two films “The Humbling” (2014) and “Manglehorn” (2014) were disappointing misfires despite his efforts, Pacino gives one of his better performances here in “Danny Collins”, a formulaic but ultimately sweet comedy drama about an aging musician at a belated turning point.
When he began his music career during the 1970s, Danny Collins, played by Eric Schneider during the opening scene and then Pacino after that, was a rising new talent to notice, and he soon attained more fame and success as everyone predicted at that time. 40 years have passed since that, but he is still popular enough to be recognized by others, and he has been comfortably coasting along on his fame and success. With the assistance of his manager Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer), he dutifully goes through his routine concert tours, and all he has to do is performing his old popular songs as wanted by his many fans, most of whom are as old as he is now.
However, like many other old guys who become more aware of long years behind them, he begins to feel unsatisfied with his luxurious (and hedonistic) lifestyle he has been leading for many years – especially when he comes to learn on his birthday that John Lennon sent a personal letter to him after reading an interview article on Collins. Reading the letter belatedly delivered to him, Collins begins to wonder about how things could have turned out to be different if he had received that encouraging letter at that time, and, yes, that iconic song by Lennon is played over the scene as Collins pensively looks around his big residence in the aftermath of his wild birthday party (As jockingly recognized at the beginning of the film and then shown further during its end credits, this premise is partially inspired by a real-life incident; Lennon wrote a letter of support and encouragement to young British musician Steve Tilston in 1971, but Tilston himself learned about the letter only after being approached by a collector in 2005).
Eventually, Collins decides to pull up himself for a change. He temporarily stops doing concert tours to Frank’s dismay, he walks out of his big mansion where he has lived with his young new wife (she is No.4, by the way), and he travels to New Jersey for concentrating on resuming his songwriting while visiting his son he has not met for years. Tom (Bobby Cannavale), who has led an ordinary family life with his pregnant wife and their hyperactive daughter, understandably does not welcome his prodigal father at all, but he cannot stop him from approaching to his family. After all, how can he refuse an offer which will surely benefit his precious daughter?
Meanwhile, there comes the possibility of new romance to Collins. During his stay at a nearby Hilton hotel, he comes across Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening), the no-nonsense hotel manager who is not as thrilled to meet Collins as others in the hotel. Something clicks between them as they spend more time with each other, and it looks like she can be the one with whom he begins the new chapter of his life – if he is really committed to his initial decision.
Although the story takes a couple of conventional plot turns during the second half of the film, the first-time director Dan Fogelman, who previously wrote the screenplays for “Tangled” (2010) and “Crazy, Stupid, Love” (2011), pays attention to small, intimate moments between his well-defined characters, and his screenplay balances itself well between humor and drama even when the characters’ situation becomes more serious after a certain plot point. While Lennon’s songs are prominently played on the soundtrack, “Hey Baby Doll” and “Don’t Look Down”, which were specially written for the film as Collins’s two different songs, are effective used in the film with their contrasting impressions.
As far as I remember, this is the first time we see Pacino playing a singer on the screen. While he does not sing as much as you might expect, I can tell you that he looks as good as his character is supposed to be on the stage. He is perfectly cast as a vain but vulnerable man who wants to regain what he lost years ago, and his likable performance engages us as equally revealing Collins’s better and worse sides. Collins is indeed sincere in his quest for restart and redemption, but he is still a selfish star driven by his ego and insecurity, and that is why we are not so surprised by his sudden change of mind right before one crucial moment which may determine the rest of his career.
Pacino is surrounded by good supporting actors who bring considerable humor and warmth to their respective characters we come to care about as much as Collins. As the potential love interest in the film, Annette Bening has a nice understated chemistry with Pacino during their scenes, and Jennifer Garner gives a warm, gentle performance as Tom’s pregnant wife. Christopher Plummer, a great actor as legendary as Pacino, effortlessly steals the show as Collins’s loyal manager, and Bobby Cannavale has a very poignant moment when his character has to hide something from his loving family he deeply cares about. Young actress Giselle Eisenberg also holds her own small place well among her adult co-starts, and she looks natural even when her character is in her usual hyperactive mode which would overwhelm any good parents.
“Danny Collins” is an entertaining movie both funny and touching, and I enjoyed watching Pacino trying something different with gusto. Like Robert De Niro, he made several regrettable career choices during recent years (remember “Gigli” (2003) and “Jack and Jill” (2011)?) but he has kept working like a trouper, and there were indeed notable career highlights such as the Emmy-winning performances in “Angels in America” (2003) and “You Don’t Know Jack” (2010). “Danny Collins” may be a lightweight stuff compared to them, but Pacino is a lot of fun while bringing a touch of class to the film, and that is more than enough for us.