He appears onscreen looking suntanned and bejeweled, his hair sprayed to a crispness that hairdressers warn you about. This effort to look young only draws attention to how old and haggard he is. Al Pacino has been playing a lot of these roles lately: badly weathered men who seem slightly bemused at how time has taken them down. As the title character in Danny Collins, he's a rock star who is approaching 70, hasn't written a new song in 30 years, and performs in cavernous concert venues full of chubby old ladies who sway to the old hits. He appears to take his dead career in stride, but deep down he knows he's become a joke. His young girlfriend cheats on him. "I'm home," he shouts every time he enters his empty mansion, and no one ever answers. He knows a birthday party is being planned for him. He doesn't care. While his guests fall flat on their faces drunk, he sits off to the side, bored.
In his day, Danny was a major star. Now he's on a farewell tour, which his manager hopes will provide him with a nice nest egg so he can finally retire and get off the road. As a birthday gift, Danny receives a letter written to him years earlier by his hero, John Lennon. Danny had once mentioned in a magazine interview that he loved Lennon. Lennon wrote to him in care of the magazine, offering Danny advice, and giving his phone number in case Danny wanted to talk. But Danny never saw the letter. When he finally reads it 40 years later, the effect is profound.
Danny believes his life might have been different had he received the letter when it was written. He could have been friends with Lennon, and might have avoided becoming a bloated has-been. Motivated for the first time in years, Danny bids adieu to his cheating groupie, and heads for New Jersey. He books a room at the Hilton, tries to write some new music, and attempts to get in touch with a son he's never met.
This is when the movie turns into mush. Danny wanders through the hotel like a grinning elf, befriending the staff. In an effort to connect with someone close to his age, he starts hitting on the hotel manager (Annette Bening). He finally meets his son (Bobby Cannavale) but as estranged sons always are in these movies, Danny's son has a chip on his shoulder and wants no part of a reunion. Fortunately, Danny's daughter-in-law (Jennifer Garner) and granddaughter warm up to him. Danny, meanwhile, lingers in his hotel room, writing maudlin songs. He spends his nights getting loaded at the hotel bar with Bening, wondering if it's too late to get to know his son.
Danny's persistence, plus his rock star money, helps him to finally get on his son's good side. He enrolls his granddaughter into a special school, then he helps his son deal with an illness. Feeling confident, Danny sets up a little club gig for himself to play his new songs. But with his newfound family and friends in the audience, Danny embarrasses himself and ends up backstage snorting cocaine. It's the old story: Man meets son, man loses son. Will man get his son in the end?
Danny Collins was directed by Dan Fogelman, who has written some films about men of a certain age who try to change their ways (Stupid Crazy Love; Last Vegas) He favors the sentimental and hammy, as if he secretly covets an audience of chubby old ladies like the ones who show up at Danny Collins concerts. His missteps here include naming the granddaughter 'Hope', to give Pacino a chance to say "Goodbye Hope" over and over again. The Lennon songs that spice up the soundtrack feel out of place in a schmaltzy Hollywood movie, and I suspect that Fogelman knows absolutely nothing about the rock and roll life. Yet, there are moments in Danny Collins that work remarkably well. The cast, especially Pacino, rises above the sappy material. Christopher Plummer is very fine as Danny's straight-shooting manager. Garner is funny when she says Danny missed out on a "perfect daughter-in-law." As Danny's attention starved granddaughter, Giselle Eisenberg looks like the new Shirley Temple. I hope she doesn't grow up too quickly. And watch the way Cannavale reaches out to hold Pacino's hand near the movie's end. It'll make you forget some of the silly stuff that happens along the way.
- Don Stradley