Past the Popcorn: Al Pacino Proves to be a Charmer in Danny Collins

by Jeff Walls

In 1971, folk singer Steve Tilston gave an interview in which he discussed his fears that wealth and fame might negatively affect his songwriting. The article was read by none other than John Lennon, who was inspired to write a letter to the then 21-year-old singer offering words of advice. In 2010, Tilston finally received the letter. That true story served as the inspiration for the new movie Danny Collins, the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Fogelman.

Danny Collins is the stand-in for Tilston and the movie opens with his nervous 1971 interview before flashing forward to a far-past-his-prime Danny performing on a greatest hits tour. Danny has lived the rock star life of drugs, booze, and women, but he sees his advancing age reflected in the eyes of the “golden girls” in the front row. As a birthday gift, his manager presents him with a framed copy of the letter from John Lennon that he bought from a collector. Danny is inspired from the letter and without much thought about it, decides to make a change to his life.

danny-collins-insetHe leaves his L.A. mansion and 20-something girlfriend behind and checks in for an indefinite stay at a Hilton in New Jersey. He chooses that hotel because it is close to where his adult son lives, a son whom he has never met. He shows up unannounced where he meets his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, but is thrown out by his son who wants nothing to do with him. Had this been the old Danny, he probably would have let things be, but he is determined to turn over a new leaf and he continues his efforts despite the pushback.

Beyond the setup of the John Lennon letter, the plot should sound very familiar. The deadbeat parent looking to reconnect with a grown child is a storyline that has been around for years and will continue to be around for years to come. There is a nice twist, though, in the father-son relationship that keeps the plot from feeling too stale. What makes Danny Collins worth seeing, though, is the delightful cast who all play their roles to near perfection.

It all starts at the top with Al Pacino as Danny Collins. His character is an amalgam of many different rock stars, but he reminded me most of Neil Diamond, largely due to the fact that his big hit song “Baby Doll” plays very much like Diamond’s classic “Sweet Caroline.” Pacino is not a very good singer, but that doesn’t hurt the movie as his character’s best singing years are supposed to be behind him anyway. What Pacino does bring to the table is charm. It is a delight to watch the legendary actor talk his way into the hearts of the employees at the hotel and as he tries to do the same with his son’s family. It’s a kind of performance that we really haven’t seen from Pacino in years and it is somewhat refreshing.

Pacino also has great chemistry—or as Danny calls it, “patter”—with Annette Bening, who plays the hotel manager that he’s determined to take to dinner. It is a relatively small role for Bening, but a good one. She is very important to the story as she is the one who keeps Danny on track.

Rounding out the main cast is Bobby Cannavale and Jennifer Garner as Danny’s son and daughter-in-law. Both are very good.  Garner especially delights and has some great moments, such as when she informs Danny that he really messed up because she “would have been a great daughter-in-law.”

Another thing that I especially liked about Danny Collins is that the soundtrack is comprised mostly of John Lennon songs. Not only does this give us good music to listen to, but it works to add another element to the film as well. For it is Lennon and his letter that inspired Danny to seek out his son and try to be a part of his life. I like to think the music on the soundtrack was also running through Danny’s head throughout the story, allowing it to serve as a motivational reminder both for the character and for the audience.

Danny Collins the movie turns out to be just as charming as Danny Collins the character and I genuinely enjoyed this movie. It is may be a familiar story, but it is a sweet, funny, and simply well-executed one.

Danny Collins opens today at the Regal Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Eat local before you go!

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