A fairly formulaic, overly sentimental story of rock-star redemption
Danny Collins is the story of an aging rock star (Al Pacino) who stumbles into a deep-dish midlife crisis while playing out the string on the nostalgia circuit. The ensuing drama is part soap opera, part cautionary character study, part pop-culture satire, part redemptive valedictory, etc., etc.
Writer-director Dan Fogelman also has the benefit of a good supporting cast (with Christopher Plummer and Annette Bening being the most prestigious), plus there’s the much-publicized plot hook, a letter from John Lennon that reaches Danny a good 40 years after it was sent.
But even with its multiple angles of interest and its attractive cast, Danny Collins never really develops any complexity and depth in its characters and situations. And what began as a sardonic take on pop-star celebrity and the music business devolves into something like standard-issue show-biz sentimentality.
Pacino’s raunchy swagger provides adequate entertainment throughout, and he’s at least partly credible as the kind of Jersey Boy who maybe got too big for doo-wop groups and went solo. But Fogelman has written the character as someone who might have been another Bob Dylan (the sort of pop music fledgling who might have gotten supportive attention from Lennon), and it’s hard to see any of that in Pacino’s Danny.
In any event, this film’s wisp of satire—aging rocker performing his greatest hits for crowds of middle-aged women—seems petty and mean-spirited in every respect. Worse yet, the picture’s putative “inside view” of Danny’s life and career has very little in it that resembles first-hand experience, let alone genuine insight.
Nevertheless, the film’s assorted sub-plots provide a diverting set of sideshows that keep the proceedings afloat, more often than not. Screwball comedy-style repartee gives temporary piquancy to Danny’s flirtation with a seemingly staid hotel manager (Bening). Plummer quite naturally brings gravity and wry humor to the role of Danny’s longtime manager, and that has the perhaps unfortunate effect of diminishing the character’s own streak of desperation.
The biggest of the plot twists is the most central and, ultimately, the most problematical. With the Lennon letter as partial motivation, Danny sets out to make amends with the adult son Tom (Bobby Cannavale) he has never really acknowledged or met. Tom and his wife, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), have a young daughter named Hope (a very energetic Giselle Eisenberg), and Danny’s newfound status as doting grandfather awakens family feelings in him, at a time when Hope’s parents would prefer not to have anything to do with him.
Later on, Fogelman adds a couple of medical sub-plots to the family-drama mix, and by that point, the soap opera elements of Danny Collins are beginning to strangle on their own formulaic extravagance. That’s not enough to kill the entire enterprise, but I can’t help wishing Fogelman’s movie didn’t seem so eager to please, and so shameless in its indulgence of bittersweet sentiments.