In his recent movies, Al Pacino has been devoting himself to showing what it’s like to be an old guy. He was an old cop in “Righteous Kill,” an old gangster in “Standup Guys,” an old actor in “The Humbling,” and now he’s an old rock star in “Danny Collins.” In each of those roles, his age was not incidental, but was very much a part of what those movies had to say.
With “Danny Collins,” this movement in Pacino’s career gets interesting. Until now, the most indelible Pacino has always been the young man. Many actors experience a heyday in their 40s, but Pacino had his in his 30s, when he made a series of classics, including the first two “Godfather” movies, “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “. . . And Justice for All.” He’ll never top that, but these recent movies may end up creating a new indelible Pacino image, as well as an important third act in a great actor’s career.
These new films explore questions that Hollywood usually avoids: What is it like to have been somebody in the world, but then lose your ability or interest? How do you escape the patterns of a lifetime? How do you conduct yourself when you feel the same as ever, but the clock is running down? And what, if anything, really matters in the end? “Danny Collins” is an entertaining and refreshing take on these questions, with Pacino as a megastar of more than 40 years standing, a pop elder statesman like Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney, whom even 20-year-olds would recognize.
But unlike Dylan or McCartney, Danny hasn’t written a song in 30 years; and though he sells out big arenas, he can’t help but feel like he lost himself along the way. Wherever he goes, everybody wants to hear his last big hit, “Hey, Baby Doll,” a song that sounds like light, pleasing pop the first time you hear it, but by the second or third time is revealed as an anvil around his neck. Singing “Hey, Baby Doll” to 20,000 people isn’t like breaking rocks for a living, but anyone could see how that wouldn’t be fulfilling.
Then one day, his longtime agent (Christopher Plummer) gives him an unexpected present. Apparently, back in 1971, John Lennon wrote a letter to Danny warning him about the dangers of fame and inviting him to hang out with him. The letter was never delivered, and now, more then 40 years later, Danny seizes on this missive as the summons to change his life. Maybe if he’d met Lennon, he wouldn’t have dried up as an artist or turned into a nostalgia act.
“Danny Collins” is a fun glimpse into stardom on the ultimate level. Every person he meets feels privileged just to talk to him. He is greeted only by smiles; and in return, he has to perform and act high-spirited, even if he doesn’t feel that way. For sure, it enhances the movie that Danny is being played by Pacino, a star of equal magnitude; and at times we can’t help but wonder where the character ends and Pacino begins.
As you might expect, the movie is about one man’s attempts at redemption, both as an artist and as a human being, but there’s a nice fluidity and freedom to writer-director Dan Fogelman’s storytelling, so things never become predictable. Bobby Cannavale has a supporting role as Danny’s son, who is bitter at never having known his father, though at least he should be happy that he got his height from mom’s side of the family. Cannavale has too often been cast in thuggish roles. Here he retains some thuggish power, but he’s basically a sensitive family man.
As the woman who becomes Danny’s conscience – a hotel manager that he keeps flirting with – Annette Bening is warm but wary, projecting the self-protective aura of someone who knows she is out of her depth. It’s a subtle performance, suggesting lots of thought and suppressed emotion.
By the way, “Danny Collins” is inspired by the true story of Steve Tilston, a British musician who received a 1971 letter from John Lennon some 30 years after it was written. The gist of the letter was about the same, but all the characters and circumstances are creations of the filmmaker. Curiously, that makes “Danny Collins” one of two movies currently in release – the other is “Living is Easy With Eyes” closed – based on something John Lennon did in real life.
In both cases, Lennon extended himself in a generous way that took him no more than 10 minutes, and he probably never thought of it again. But over 40 years later, it all comes back.
B Cast: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannaval, Christopher Plummer
Director: Dan Fogelman
Length: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Rating: R (language, drug use and some nudity)
Raleigh: Grande, Colony.