The old pro lets it rip in role of aging, casino-circuit rock star, writes Jay Stone
Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer
Directed by: Dan Fogelman
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
There’s a scene in the slightly over-caffeinated comedy Danny Collins in which Al Pacino, playing an overage rock-and-roll star, gets dressed up to meet the estranged son he has never known. He is wearing his usual ensemble: loud sports jacket, open shirt, a necklace holding a hollowed-out cross in which he holds his cocaine, and a long silk scarf. He looks like an explosion in Wayne Newton’s closet.
“How do I look?,” he asks the manager of the hotel where he is staying.
“Slightly ridiculous,” she says, diplomatically.
But hey, it’s Al Pacino, so how ridiculous can he be? Pacino is a diminutive actor of such ferocious power that he actually towers under other performers. In Danny Collins he brings his full array of acting tics — the explosion of fortissimo at the end of a sentence, the lupine smile, the growly energy — to a character who is essentially a louse with a heart of show business gold. Danny Collins is a preposterous assemblage: his retro concerts reveal a performer who can’t sing (he sounds like what might have happened if Leonard Cohen had been born in the Bronx) bouncing on the stage to forgettable tunes that nonetheless drive the older audience wild.
Pacino doesn’t make Danny any more palatable, but he dares you to disbelieve him.
It helps that writer/director Dan Fogelman pre-empts our cynicism. Danny has a girlfriend whom he acknowledges is too young for him. His career is portrayed as a joke: one of those endless tours in which former rock stars play their ancient hits for elderly fans grasping for their own pathetic glory days. “If what I just did qualified as singing, I’d be great,” he says after his concert, at about the same time we’re thinking the same thing.
It also helps that the hotel manager is played by Annette Bening, who at 58 (Pacino is 73) has grown into an easy and attractive middle age, a little the better for wear. Bening has a great squinchy smile that’s an ideal match for Pacino’s evil grin.
The story — inspired by the true tale of British singer Steve Tilston — has Danny abandoning his young girlfriend and glorious Hollywood mansion when his manager (a sly, perky turn by Christopher Plummer) gives him a birthday present. Forty years earlier, John Lennon had written Danny a letter of support and it only just got to him. Had he received it earlier, it might have turned his life around, although it’s unclear exactly why. A few musical hints — Imagine plays after Danny reads the letter — fill in the emotional gaps.
This sends Danny off to New Jersey to reunite with his son Tom (Bobby Cannavale), Tom’s wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and their hyperactive daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg), so named apparently so the embittered Tom can tell him, “Mr. Collins, say goodbye to Hope,” as he throws him out of the house.
Fogelman, making his directorial debut, is best known as the writer of Crazy, Stupid Love and The Guilt Trip, films that had a similar way of twisting expectations without getting all indie about it. But while Danny Collins starts as the portrait of a fascinating dickhead, it turns into a tale of redemption, complete with a second-act twist that pulls it back from the brink of happy, chaotic amorality. The plot suddenly goes Hollywood in the most conventional way: a tear-jerker with its own jerk. It’s slightly ridiculous, but at least we were warned.