Four stars. Rated R, for profanity, nudity and drug content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.10.15
You have to admire a fact-based film that’s candid about not telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Danny Collins opens with a disclaimer that reads “Kind of based on a true story a little bit.” Gotta love it.
As it happens, writer/director Dan Fogelman’s charming dramedy merely “borrows” a minor incident as a jumping-off point for the wholly fictitious saga of an aging rock/pop star who undergoes a life-changing epiphany.
Or so he hopes...
Fogelman has sharp writing sensibilities: an eye for engaging character dynamics, and an ear for the sort of intelligent, witty badinage that we don’t get often enough in today’s movies. After script assists on animated fare such as Cars and Tangled, and an endearing solo turn on the under-appreciated TV movie Lipshitz Saves the World, Fogelman made an impressive big-screen writing splash with 2011’s delightful Crazy, Stupid, Love.
His immediate follow-ups — The Guilt Trip and Last Vegas — were somewhat disappointing, in comparison, but Fogelman has kicked back into high gear with Danny Collins, on which he also makes a respectable directing debut. The result is a thoroughly entertaining, character-driven melodrama that grants Al Pacino his best role since his turn as TV journalist Lowell Bergman, in 1999’s The Insider.
He stars here as Danny Collins, a one-time rock wunderkind whose debut album, way back in the day, demonstrated the poetic grace of a Bob Dylan ... but who, during the intervening four decades, has succumbed to the drugs, alcohol and circus-style pomp of his rock-god image, up to and including his hilariously overdone, George Hamilton-style tan.
I hope Neil Diamond has a good sense of humor, because the typical Danny Collins concert extravaganza with which Fogelman opens his film — during which the star belts out his signature anthem, “Hey, Baby Doll,” to enthusiastic audience participation — looks and sounds just like the love-fest that occurs whenever Diamond does “Sweet Caroline” during his shows.
Backstage, the ennui has taken its toll, the years of identically vacuous performances deeply etched into lines of discouragement on Danny’s face. And while he may have more money than God, and all the trappings that wealth can buy — including a sexpot girlfriend half his age (Katarina Cas, as the rarely dressed Sophie) — Danny has become cynical, miserable, bored ... and desperate.
Desperate enough, that the notion of another birthday is giving him thoughts of ending it all.
Longtime manager and best friend Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer), tut-tutting such self-pity, gives Danny a most unusual birthday present. Way back in the day, when Danny was interviewed by a Rolling Stone-esque magazine, his candor aroused the interest of no less than John Lennon, who responded with an encouraging letter. But the letter went astray for various reasons, and Danny never received it.
Now, thanks to Frank’s dedicated Internet search — knowing that Danny has long admired Lennon — the letter has been found, framed and presented to its intended recipient.
This short note shakes Danny to the core. Abandoning everything — including the remainder of the tour — he jets to a suburban New Jersey community and checks into a quiet Hilton Inn, where he meets cute with the young doorman (Josh Peck, as Nicky), the equally young counter clerk (Melissa Benoist, as Jamie) and the somewhat more mature manager (Annette Bening, as Mary).
This somnambulant New Jersey setting is no mere caprice; it’s within shouting distance of the modest neighborhood home of the adult son that Danny never has met. The newly invigorated pop star is on two missions: to write some deeply heartfelt new songs, akin to those he penned all those years ago; and to connect with the family he has wholly ignored during that entire time.
Trouble is, he has forgotten how to do the former, and has virtually no experience with the latter.
Nor does his son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), wish to have anything to do with this absentee parent who descends like an expectant bolt from the blue. Tom’s wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) is a bit more sympathetic, but still troubled; when she concludes what’s likely to be her one and only meeting with Danny by saying “Shame on you,” that single word slices through his heart more skillfully than a surgeon’s sharpest blade.
Pacino’s shattered response, conveyed wholly by his silence and wounded eyes, speaks volumes.
But he perceptively realizes that the path into Tom and Samantha’s lives routes through their adorably lively young daughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg). The little girl actually is alarmingly, uncontrollably shrill at the blink of an eye: an ADHD kid who can’t get the necessary help from Tom’s modest income in construction work.
By now, we know that Fogelman’s narrative is heading into unapologetically sentimental waters ... but that’s absolutely OK. Pacino has built up enough good will; we’re ready to follow his Danny anywhere. The always excellent Cannavale delivers just the right blend of dismay, disgust and disappointment as the aggrieved, working-class Tom, while Garner is similarly spot-on as the daughter-in-law who senses that rapprochement would be best for all concerned, if only it could be finessed.
Meanwhile, Danny has had a piano moved into his room at the Hilton — we have to assume that the place is mostly empty, and that he therefore doesn’t bother anybody — and is struggling his way through putting music to a set of freshly scrawled lyrics.
What follows navigates a rather predictable path, except when it doesn’t, and then rather shamelessly ratchets up the schmaltz ... but, again, that’s OK. By this point, Fogelman is in firm control, and we’re ready to follow him anywhere.
Pacino’s Danny is vibrant, brash and doggedly intrusive: absolutely determined to write a new song, to break through Tom’s self-defensive barriers, to score a dinner date with Mary. He’s the cad we can’t help admiring, who too frequently tries to solve problems by throwing money at them, but who genuinely wants to make authentic emotional connections ... if only he could figure out how.
He’s simultaneously funny and pathetic, and while his newly acquired acquaintances may laugh with him, we can see that it’s the guarded laughter of nervous victims prepared to bolt at the slightest hint of actual instability. The role is tailor-made for Pacino, who rewards us with a marvelously opulent and richly, subtly shaded performance.
Cannavale, an under-appreciated actor whom I’ve admired since he came to my attention in 2003’s The Station Agent, is quietly persuasive as Tom. Cannavale works an impressive array of emotions into his performance, and he always looks and sounds just right, as a guy utterly unwilling to accept this glad-handing stranger at his word ... but nonetheless, deep down, wanting to.
Plummer is the pluperfect mentor: a long-stereotyped role that the veteran actor nonetheless re-defines and makes his own, much the way Burgess Meredith brought fresh life to the similarly clichéd part of “crusty boxing trainer” in the original Rocky. Plummer’s Frank is quietly wise, eternally patient, and also capable of unleashing wonderfully snarky one-liners.
Bening is enjoyable on a different level: She makes Mary a woman who has been around some, and who enjoys verbal duels with Danny for their own sake, but who nonetheless sees right through the artifice. Bening’s droll repartee with Pacino is delicious — the stuff of classic Howard Hawks romantic comedies — and Fogelman even tweaks us by calling attention to it, when Danny delightedly chortles about the “good banter” that he and Mary share.
Garner is solicitous and sympathetic: a concerned wife and mother who radiates calm and devotion, but who also possesses the protective instincts of a lioness. Cas, in turn, is amusingly shallow as the unapologetically slutty, gold-digging Sophie.
Benoist, so memorable during her two seasons on TV’s Glee, is adorably effervescent as the nervous Jamie, whom Danny immediately tries to pair off with Nicky; Peck handles that part with eager-beaver aplomb.
Danny’s crowd-pleasing power anthem notwithstanding, the rest of the film’s soundtrack is graced by nine well-placed Lennon tunes, from “Imagine” and “Working Class Hero” to “Beautiful Boy” and “Cold Turkey.”
As for Fogelman’s inspiration — you wanted to know, right? — it comes from a letter that Lennon actually wrote to British folk musician Steve Tilston in 1971 (the same year Lennon writes the note in this film), who only found out about it in 2005, when an American collector shared it. Tilston has enjoyed a modest but consistently successful career, and we can only imagine how his life might have changed, had he read the letter when it actually was sent.
Which, of course, is the hook on which Fogelman has quite cleverly hung his warm and endearing film. Danny Collins deserves to become a hit: It’ll reward repeat viewing, and I’m equally certain that its soundtrack will become a best-seller.