Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Danny Collins

Director: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Plummer, Katarina Čas, Giselle Eisenberg, Melissa Benoist, Josh Peck, Eric Michael Roy, Nick Offerman
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

About a decade ago, Neil Diamond released a Rick Rubin-produced album that was complete departure from anything he'd previously done, trading his usual, over-the-top bombast for an acoustic guitar and stripped down sound. The result was his biggest commercial and critical hit in years. I couldn't help but think of it while watching the immensely enjoyable Danny Collins, wondering if Diamond had a crisis similar to the title character to cause that change in course. Probably not, even if the aging rocker Al Pacino plays seems much closer in style to Diamond than the actual inspiration, folk singer Steve Tilston.

Just as his music was taking off in 1971, Tilston was written a letter of encouragement from John Lennon and Yoko Ono that he didn't receive until 34 years later, sparking a dramatic change in his life. As a concept, it's an ingenious starting point, made all the more satisfying screenwriter Dan Fogelman's (making his directorial debut) immediate acknowledgment that he'll be taking liberties with it. And they're mostly clever ones. But what's more amazing might be his ability to secure the rights to Lennon's music for the film, as some of his biggest solo hits punctuate key scenes. While I'm not sure it dramatically increases the overall experience and he goes a bit overboard with it, if ever a screenplay screamed out for Lennon's songs, it's this one.    

While Pacino's clearly channeling Diamond, he's also channeling Pacino, as it's impossible not to consider the actor's legendary career while watching and rooting for this character. It's not only a reminder of how long he's been at this, but perhaps some of the choices he's made along the way. Some good, others less so. This is one of those better choices and, as usual, he looks like he's having the time of his life.

Pacino plays Danny Collins, a show-stopping rocker whose fan base now primarily consists of older women singing along with his early 1970's pop hit, "Hey, Baby Doll." Filling up arenas by coasting on the success of that "Sweet Caroline"-like smash, he hasn't written any new material in 30 years and refuses to give up his costly, hard partying rock star lifestyle, which includes a girlfriend (Katarina Čas) half his age. But when his best friend and manager, Frank (Christopher Plummer) gives him a framed, 40-year-old undelivered letter written to him by John Lennon as a birthday gift, he's forced to reexamine his choices and consider how differently his life could have turned out had he gotten it.

Danny's suddenly determined to locate his estranged son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), who's built a normal life with wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and daughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg) that emphatically excludes the celebrity father who abandoned him. But an indefinite stay at the local Hilton turns his attention to the hotel's no nonsense manager, Mary (Annette Bening), who he keeps trying to hit on. She keeps his ego in check as he reluctantly begins to write new material and attempts to find redemption with his family.

From the opening flashback scene, it's obvious this is going to be a good time. It shows a twenty-something Danny (Eric Michael Roy, a dead ringer for young Pacino) being interviewed by a music journalist (an unrecognizable Nick Offerman doing his best Lester Bangs) looking like a deer caught in headlights of fame. Scared to death by celebrity harming the artistic purity of his work, a letter from his idol could have provided him with some guidance and encouragement at just the right time. Instead, he became this larger than life showman, who never stopped to consider himself a sell-out until reading Lennon's letter delivers an unexpected jolt.

Danny's far from a failure, but it wouldn't be a stretch to call him somewhat a joke. At this point, he's famous for just being famous, having contributed nothing meaningful in years, yet still riding high with an enjoyable but tired act. Without naming names, we see it all the time, so it's easy to understand why he'd be afraid to step out of his comfort zone to try something artistically different. And it helps that Pacino plays him as this charming, wonderful, one-of-kind guy who just storms into this hotel like a force of nature and wins over everyone in sight, complimenting the staff and even trying to set the desk clerk (Whiplash's Melissa Benoist) up with the parking valet (Josh Peck). Only the seemingly humorless manager, Mary, remains unimpressed, which of course makes her his ideal equal.

Danny even eventually wears Mary down in the film's most successful sequence, with Pacino and Bening at their respective bests playing off each other in a hotel bar as their characters discover they have much more in common than they thought. They share such a natural chemistry (or "patter" as Danny calls it) that would feel entirely contrived with two other actors in the roles. Here, you're just lost in two real people just enjoying each others company. Their interplay is so seamless it's often tough to tell where Al and Annette end and Danny and Mary begin.

A development occurs almost midway through that's best not to talk about other than saying it comes out of the "Screenwriting 101" handbook and would likely get you kicked out of class. It's a credit to Fogelman's expertise, Pacino's convincing work and Bobby Cannavale's realistic, matter-of-fact performance as a working class father justifiably offended by Danny's arrival, that they pull it off. And as questionable as it looks on paper, that I'd have problems coming up with any reasonable alternatives must speak to its success on some level. Without it, we also wouldn't have gotten the unusually observant final scene, which puts a nice bow on the story while not depriving us of the (admittedly remote) possibility that maybe things don't work out.

In hindsight, the direction this goes does kind of make sense in that his son Tom's problems (more severe than expected) would get in the way of Danny's "happy ending" and redemption. After all, as likable a guy as he is, he's also an egomaniac who thinks the world revolves around him. Pacino plays these two sides of him so well that it's a blast seeing him bounce off everyone else.

Aside from Bening, who invests Mary with more depth than anticipated, Christopher Plummer smoothly and sarcastically conveys the experience of a music industry vet who simply tells it like it is. Jennifer Garner also gets some solid scenes opposite Pacino as the spouse more receptive to having Danny in their lives, despite the emotional risks to her husband and daughter. And as Hope, Giselle Eisenberg (no relation) accomplishes the rare child actor feat of being the precocious center of attention without becoming overbearing.

There's an alternate moviegoing universe in which Danny Collins tops the box office and becomes a giant hit for Pacino, possibly even earning him a nomination. That universe is the 1990's, when crowd-pleasing, star-driven adult dramas were still filling multiplexes. Consider the fact that this was released at all, and turned out this well, a victory in itself. And those justifiably lamenting that studios aren't making intelligent mainstream movies about older people anymore will find a lot to appreciate here. It's formulaic in every sense, but proof that in the right hands, the formula still works.

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