It’s been 12 years since the great Al Pacino has been involved in a project totally worthy of him. (His Roy Cohn in 2003’s HBO miniseries Angels in America was his last great role.) He’s become a bit of a caricature in the last decade, appearing in some of its worst movies—Ocean’s Thirteen, Gigli, 88 Minutes, Jack and Jill and Righteous Kill to name a few—and hamming it up to the point where he’s nearly unwatchable.
Danny Collins isn’t a return to absolute greatness for Pacino, but it does serve as a rather relevant and crowd-pleasing vehicle for the former Michael Corleone.
Pacino steps up as the title character, a Neil Diamond-like rock singer who has spent the past 40 years touring and performing “the hits.” No longer a productive songwriter, he’s come to rely on the comfort of crowds reacting happily to his most popular hit, “Baby Doll.” He’s also heavy into drugs and alcohol and engaged to a girl half his age.
On the eve of his birthday, his manager (a delightfully acerbic Christopher Plummer) gives him a special present: a framed personal letter to him that John Lennon wrote many years ago that was never delivered. Lennon had once read an article about Collins, was moved, and sent a correspondence from him and Yoko with his phone number. He was offering some fatherly advice to the confused young Danny, but due to a scummy collector getting his hands on the letter, Danny never got it.
The gift throws Danny into a tailspin, wondering what life would’ve been like if he could’ve called Lennon and been pals. Trivia note: This element of the story is actually based on the true story of folk singer Steve Tilston, who received a similar reassuring letter from John Lennon 34 years after it was written, phone number and all.
Danny packs his bag and heads to Jersey, where he takes up residence in the neighborhood Hilton and commits to finding his estranged son (Bobby Cannavale). He puts himself on a course for redemption, putting a piano in his room and trying to rediscover the artistic hunger that drove him 40 years earlier.
Undoubtedly, Pacino must have seen the “redemptive” angle in the script as a nice parallel to his own fledgling career. His last great cinematic venture, besides the HBO effort, was 2002’s Insomnia, which capped a long stretch of good-to-great vehicles for the American icon. Pacino dives into the role of Danny with much aplomb, but also employs the sort of nuance that has been missing from his work for too many years.
He’s fully engaged in the movie, which helps him to rise above the schmaltz and make it something entertaining, moving and funny. He gets help from a stellar supporting cast, including Annette Bening as the hotel manager Danny has a crush on, Jennifer Garner as the daughter-in-law he’s just meeting, and the aforementioned Cannavale and Plummer.
Cannavale deserves special notice, because his character is given a disease-of-the-week plotline along with the abandoned son routine, enough clichés to torpedo any performer. Somehow, Cannavale turns the whole thing into his best screen work yet, and it’s actually a pleasure to see him exchanging lines with Pacino.
Of course, the biggest sell in this film is buying Pacino as a singer. Pacino is a shitty, shitty singer, and he seems to know it, so the couple of scenes where he’s on stage strutting his stuff to “Baby Doll” are a bit comical. Yet, they have a lot of appeal and play not unlike Mickey Dolenz in his latter years faking his way through “I’m a Believer.”
Danny Collins might not mark the return of the great Pacino, but it does stand as his best work in a decade, and proof that the old bastard has plenty of gas left in the tank. I also think he should do a little tour as his Danny Collins persona. It would be fantastically awful to the point of being awesome.