Danny Collins features one of Al Pacino’s best roles in the past decade, although that’s not exactly high praise considering the pieces of hoo-ah in which he’s starred. Nonetheless, the story of an aging rock star who continues to live with the ghosts of his past while trying to stay true to himself feels oddly fitting for Pacino, an underlying meta narrative that allows for Pacino to explore himself and his decisions as of late. Dan Fogelman, writer of Tangled and Crazy, Stupid, Love., makes his directorial debut here in a strange thematic departure of sorts from those previous efforts. The film, laced with keen observations on aging and the struggles of rekindling a family relationship after it’s been destroyed, is more emotionally potent than expected, opting for intelligent emotion rather than easy old people jokes. This is not Stand Up Guys or Last Vegas; rather, it’s a sporadically moving, often chuckle-worthy venture that plays its ending too easily but knows just the right notes to hit over its 106-minute duration.
The story centers on the titular singer, played by Al Pacino, who is in the middle of a late tour that will ultimately build to the release of a new album. He continues to perform the same, simple songs on stage over and over, with old audience members reveling in the catchy tunes while Danny realizes the emptiness of it all. He hates what he has become, and has always wanted to write, even if he’s not the most talented. Yet a note from one of the all-time greats, John Lennon, that was written over forty years ago, shows up in Danny’s possession and tells of Lennon’s desires for Danny to pursue his career to the fullest. Danny’s agent and long-time friend, Frank (Christopher Plummer), has been by his side for the longest time, and highly discourages him from canceling the tour. Danny disobeys, travels to visit his estranged son Tom (Bobby Cannavale) and his wife, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), and hopes to start writing his new album and find the artistic peace that he has so often craved. Danny also grows fond of the hotel manager Mary (Annette Bening), who often hops in on Danny’s piano session and attempts to guide him down the right path.
While much of Danny Collins shows the title character’s lavish, booze-soaked lifestyle, there’s a sweetness underlying almost every moment. A particularly telling scene outside of a house has Frank telling Tom of his and Danny’s friendship; what starts as a simple remembrance turns into an analysis of Frank’s life and the way that Danny turned it around. His professional career did not overlap with his personal one, as Danny always cared for Frank and wanted the best for him and everyone he loves. Pacino brings compassion to his role, even if there are times when he tries to challenge our view of Danny and make him sporadically unsympathetic. Jennifer Garner, while playing a mostly thankless role that asks her to be the concerned wife with a child, provides acute insight outside of the family drama that allows some duality in the film. There are too many trying moments in the film’s final half, even as the story explores unique, unfamiliar themes like middle-aged cancer. The ending, as mentioned before, is gratingly cheesy, falling into absurd sweetness rather than genuine sincerity. Nonetheless, the performances and mostly subtle writing make Danny Collins a pleasant, good-minded effort.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)