It happens to the best of actors. One day you’re an A-lister appearing in the greatest movies of all-time, the next you’re an old man doing soft melodrama roles. Al Pacino has reached that phase with Danny Collins, but he narrowly avoids falling into sappy pitfall of an easy paycheck. He has the aid of a fantastic screenwriter turned director (Dan Fogelman) and a brilliant ensemble cast (Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Garner, Annette Bening). But it’s mostly Al Pacino’s performance that catapults this picture past the usual overly schmaltzy and tidy storytelling built for the older crowd.
At first, the story seems fairly predictable. Pacino plays the titular character as an old rock star that still plays to crowds of the elderly. His path of riches, younger women and cocaine is shaken when he receives a fan letter from John Lennon dating back to 1971. Deciding to proceed on a different route, he takes up residence at a Hilton in New Jersey to both write new material and make amends for neglecting his son Tom (Bobby Cannavale). Additionally, he tries to come on to the hotel manager Mary (Annette Bening).
Danny approaches all of these situations with a high level of energy charisma. He’s excited about starting anew as a songwriter, lover and grandfather. But his enthusiasm is not met by Tom or Mary considering they’re not fans of him as an artist or a father. He does his best to work his way into their hearts, but is not prepared for certain factors that come as a surprise. To warm up to Tom and his family, Danny offers to pay for Tom’s daughter Hope that requires special education with her ADHD. He figures that will be enough to at least apologize for his misdeeds in walking out on his son, but then Danny is delivered the bombshell of Tom’s Leukemia.
There are plenty of shifts in tone for Danny being sentimental about his career and his desperation to reconnect with family. But this is also a movie that doesn’t want to take the easy route for its drama. You can sense the bucking of formula when Tom reveals his Leukemia and remarks that Danny wouldn’t be getting the melodramatic movie-of-the-week ending he had foreseen in his mind. The constant surprise makes it all the more enjoyable with likable characters. Christopher Plummer is a riot as Danny’s snarky manager, filled with both affection and crass. Annette Bening has the right pitch of manager trying to maintain a smile despite her initial disapproval of Danny. Even Giselle Eisenberg as little Hope was rather exceptional, serving as more than just dressing on the plot.
The holding back is what makes both the script and Pacino’s performance shine brightly. It would be so easy for a movie such as this to go overboard with Collins’ wealth, fame and drugs. But the movie is thankfully kept to a more personal tone rather than something grander. While Danny is writing new material, he decides to show it off at a small club. There’s something very relatable about this in comparison to Pacino’s career. His last few films have been forgettable action and low-brow humor. And now here is a film that gives him real character with a smart and engaging story to work with. It won’t win him an Oscar or make him the talk of the town once more, but, as his character keeps referring to conquering his addictions, ‘baby steps’.
Danny Collins is a genuine surprise with unexpected emotions from a usually predictable formula. It’s emotional without being soapy and comical without being vulgar. It also doesn’t sell out with a simple happy ending and leaves it fairly open whether or not the audience wants Danny to succeed. Considering the wealth of heart in all the characters present, I really did hope for that shmaltzy finale. I can do without the swelling music though.
Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk