In DANNY COLLINS (2015) Al Pacino plays an aging rock star.
I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to wrap my head around Pacino playing a Neil Diamond-type— his onscreen persona just seems too intense— and after seeing this movie, I’m still not sure, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying him or the movie.
Al Pacino is Danny Collins, a Neil Diamond-type rock star who is in his waning years and has let his life pretty much go down the toilet. He does drugs, he’s married to a trophy wife who he doesn’t love, and he barely has the stamina to get through a performance anymore.
His life changes when his agent Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer) presents him with a gift: a letter written to him from John Lennon nearly 40 year ago. Lennon’s letter was written to him in response to a magazine interview Collins had given early in his career where he had expressed doubts about his music. Lennon’s letter offered him personal encouragement. Lennon had sent the letter to the magazine, and the editor had kept it rather than give it to Collins. After the editor’s death it had gone to a private dealer, where it remained until Grubman tracked it down.
The letter inspires Collins to make some life-altering changes, and number one amongst them is to finally reconnect with his estranged adult son Tom (Bobby Cannavale) and his family. And this is what DANNY COLLINS is ultimately about, and is why it becomes such an enjoyable and rewarding movie.
Al Pacino, in spite of my misgivings, is terrific as Danny Collins. I still can’t picture him as a rock star, but that doesn’t really matter because in this movie he’s playing a rock star who just doesn’t have it anymore, and in that regard, he pulls it off just fine. But more importantly, this story is about him reconnecting with his son, which is no easy task since his son wants absolutely nothing to do with him, and it’s here where Pacino shines.
My favorite part of Pacino’s performance here is that it’s much more understated than his usual work. He plays Danny Collins as a man who is weary and tired, and yet when he needs to be fiery, he rears back and pulls energy from deep within, and in scenes where he has to break through his son’s defenses, he does it with ease. He exudes sincerity and caring, and from a character who’s reputation is anything but, he makes it all very believable.
Pacino receives fine support from the rest of the cast, led by Bobby Cannavale as his son Tom. Cannavale is perfect as the working-class husband and father who wants nothing to do with his rock star father who basically disowned him for his entire life, and when Collins shows up at his door to make amends, it’s not pretty. However, Collins is persistent and makes it clear he really does want to become part of his son’s life, and as this persistance gradually chisels through Tom’s hardened construction worker exterior, Cannavale effortlessly handles these nuanced changes.
I’ve enjoyed Cannavale in films like LOVELACE (2013), CHEF (2014), and ANT-MAN (2015) to name just a few, but I don’t think I’ve seen him better than here in DANNY COLLINS.
Annette Bening also adds fine support as Collins’ new love interest Mary Sinclair, who runs the hotel where Collins is staying. They hit it off instantly and share a flirtatious chemistry throughout. Jennifer Garner is also very enjoyable as Tom’s wife Samantha. Garner, from the TV show ALIAS (2001-2006) is very good here as the lovable mother and wife, who takes to Collins immediately and helps ease the tensions between father and son. And young Giselle Eisenberg makes for a very cute and entertaining little daughter Hope.
And Christopher Plummer enjoys a scene-stealing performance as Collins’ agent Frank Grubman. It’s the type of wise-cracking role Alan Arkin has played recently.
DANNY COLLINS was written and directed by Dan Fogelman, who wrote CRAZY, STUPID LOVE (2011), one of my favorite comedies of recent years, which starred Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone. Fogelman keeps the tone of DANNY COLLINS light, and as a result the film in spite of some of serious moments remains playful and fun throughout.
You also can’t beat the music score, as it’s peppered with John Lennon songs. How cool is that? Original song “Hey Baby Doll” which is supposed to be Danny Collins’ signature tune and the one that his aging audience always wants him to perform, sounds just like a Neil Diamond ditty and is perfect for this story.
I’m still not sure I buy Pacino as an aging rock star. But I certainly buy him as a once absent father desperately trying to reconnect with his adult son. And in the story that DANNY COLLINS has to tell, that’s all that really matters.