In the 1970’s and 80’s legendary actor Al Pacino had the impeccable ability to disappear completely into every one of his roles—immerse himself into the world of Michael Corleone in the “Godfather” movies. Reemerge. And then immerse himself into the world of Frank Serpico in “Serpico” or the bank robber Sonny in “Dog Day Afternoon.” In other words, his range was astounding.
However, around the late 1980’s and through the 90’s—in movies like “Scent of a Woman,” “The Devil’s Advocate” and “Heat”—he began delivering over-the-top, scene chewing performances often involving lots of yelling. It’s not to say he was bad but he stopped being the chameleon-like actor of the seventies and became more recognizable from movie to movie. He developed an onscreen persona of sorts—“the guy who yells”—which would occasionally drift into caricature. Not only that, the quality of his film roles began to decline pretty rapidly. Looking at his filmography in the 2000’s, “Insomnia” is the only film that comes close to being great.
“Danny Collins”—written and directed by Dan Fogelman—represents a slight step in the right direction for Pacino, who gives a soulful, funny and overall three-dimensional performance. Too bad the movie itself is a cliché ridden mess that never quite finds its footing.
Pacino plays the titular Collins, a once talented singer-songwriter now making the casino rounds. Singing his greatest hits to a room full of old ladies wearing oversize t-shirts with the names of his popular songs on them. Meanwhile, off stage, he’s tired and depressed, snorting lines of cocaine and hanging out with his much younger girlfriend. On his birthday, however, he discovers that John Lennon wrote him a hand written letter in 1970. A letter he never received. This startling discovery motivates him to make amends with his bastard son Tom (Bobby Cannavale) who he’s never met.
As that plot recap suggests, “Danny Collins” can be painfully by the numbers and dull. While the “Lennon letter” hook is interesting Fogelman doesn’t really do anything interesting with it. Instead, it’s simply used to tell a bland, sentimental story of family and a washed up star’s quest for redemption. A story we’ve seen a thousand times. And all the usual clichés associated with the “washed up artist” sub genre are on display.
Yet, Pacino is entertaining to watch. After finding out about the letter, Collins’ disposition goes from tired and self destructive to upbeat and peppy. He clumsily flirts with Mary (Annette Benning), the owner of a hotel he stays at, cracks corny jokes whenever possible, is naïve about technology, tries to budge his way into Tom’s life and be chummy with his wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg). With his long combed back hair and tendency to wear old tacky suits, Collins’ appears to be stuck back in time, with all self-awareness seemingly out the window. While this shtick can be a little too cloying at times, it at least shows signs of life in Pacino. He never looks bored, like he’s just there to collect a paycheck. He puts energy and enthusiasm into the role; makes the most of the generic material. And eventually he sort of drops the corny grandpa shtick and settles into whispery voiced solemnity. Not surprisingly, Collins’ talky high-energy attitude is mostly a guise, masking deep seeded feelings of regret. Cannavale is equally strong as the defensive embittered estranged son and the one-on-one scenes between Pacino and him are the best, most authentic scenes in the whole movie.
The rest of the cast--Garner as the supportive wife, Benning as the uptight and snarky love interest and Christopher Plummer as Collins’ grouchy manager and loyal friend—all do fine work, making you wish the movie were better.
There’s a great movie buried somewhere in “Danny Collins.” You can see it in those raw, intimate exchanges between Pacino and Cannavale, and Fogelman--to his credit-- shoots those scenes as straightforwardly as possible, forgoing any overbearing music, or other flourishes to try and amp up the emotions. Otherwise, the movie is close to being a disaster. The script doesn’t cut deep enough and resorts to cliché too often. The threat of cancer is introduced halfway through and plays a major role in the rest of movie. It’s established that Hope has ADHD, leading to a scene where the family visits a high end ADHD school. However, like the “Lennon letter” Fogelman doesn’t explore this particular issue in any great depth, making it feel tacked on in order to generate more emotion from the audience and justify Hope’s presence as annoying-noise-maker-who-won’t-shut-up.
Tonally the movie is all over the map—moving back and forth from authentic drama, to schmaltzy drama to comedy. The full on comedic portions, in particular, can be utterly painful to endure, coming off forced most of the time. Pacino and Benning are supposed to have a banter-y dynamic but try as they might, they simply don’t. They don’t have good comedic or romantic chemistry in the slightest, causing most of their interactions to divulge into sheer awkwardness. And not the good kind of awkward either.
In the end, “Danny Collins” is more frustrating than bad. Pacino’s legendary status is still in tact—despite a decade of mostly dud movies—and this picture is proof that he has great performances left in him. Now he just needs to find a better script. I remain hopeful that Pacino—now in his seventies—will star in at least one more great film before he dies.