2015, R, 106 mins.
2015, R, 106 mins.
Written and directed by Dan Fogelman
DANNY COLLINS has a relatively dime-a-dozen premise that’s been done countless times before: aging rock star that has led a self-destructively hedonistic lifestyle for decades now seeks personal and emotional redemption.
There are few intentions by writer/director Dan Fogelman (making his feature film
directorial debut after writing films such as CRAZY
STUPID LOVE) to break much new dramatic ground here. More or
less, DANNY COLLINS moves from story beat to beat with a relative amount
of predictability. Ultimately,
I’ve seen so many films featuring self-absorbed characters that develop
a heart of gold that, quite frankly, I’ve lost track over the years.
manages to elevate DANNY COLLINS well above the conventions of the
redemptive drama genre in terms of generating some truly Oscar nomination
worthy turns from a few of his actors that help up the ante of the
emotional stakes in the film. Part
of what makes this film so effortlessly effective is the incredibly well
assembled cast, spearheaded by Al Pacino as the titular character, who
gives a refreshingly atypical turn here that finds an undercurrent of low
key sadness and despair that his otherwise flamboyant and eccentric past
performances don’t seem to muster.
Compellingly, Pacino is perhaps not everyone’s first and ideal
choice to playing a pop singer, but the coup de grace of his
casting here is how much soul and world weary humanity he brings to the
role. I’ve seen dozens of
films featuring the iconic actor over the years, but he hasn’t appeared
as calm, laid-back, and naturally graceful and effectual in a film in a
long time. People that covet
Pacino’s histrionic and boisterous character portrayals may be in for
bit of a shock here.
The film opens
with a sly scene set in the early 1970’s when we meet a young,
impressionable, and poised for superstardom Collins being interviewed for
a counter-culture music magazine. The
interviewer compares his work to best of anything Bob Dylan had to offer,
which is a daunting accolade to make to any up-and-coming musician
desperate to make a name for himself.
Flashforward to the present and the bordering elderly Danny (Pacino)
has essentially morphed into Neil Diamond-esque singer that plays concerts
(filled with mostly geriatric fans) featuring renditions of his classic song
catalogue. Depressingly, Danny hasn’t written anything new in over
thirty years. In short, he
has become a joke…a once promising folk god that has sold out his
artistic integrity for the soul purpose of making a quick and easy fortune
regurgitating his past musical success. His career is like a CD on
Danny has a
chance meeting with his long-time manager Frank (an utterly refined and
priceless funny Christopher Plummer) at a party, during which time they
reflect on the life that Danny has led over the years and the question of what
could have been if he went a different route with his career.
He then gives Danny an inordinately priceless gift: a letter
written to Danny from John Lennon (yes, that one) way back in the
early 70’s, commenting on how much respect he had for Danny and how he
hoped he doesn’t become a sell-out (Lennon even posted his phone number
in the letter for Danny to call him). Shockingly, this letter never made it to the young Danny back
in the day, leaving present-day Danny crestfallen. The letter, if anything, becomes a proverbial kick to
Danny’s creative juices of jumpstarting some much-needed change in his
life and career.
Vowing to never
go back to doing mind-numbingly monotonous concerts featuring his oldies,
Danny decides to start writing new material…but only after he leaves his
mansion (and his girlfriend of more than half his age) and flees to New
Jersey and checks into a local Hilton, where he hopes he'll be out of the
spotlight. When he’s not
trying to flirt with the attractive hotel general manager Mary (Annette
Bening) and drink himself to sleep every night, Danny tries to seek out
his estranged son Tom (Bobby Cannavale), a child he had with a groupie
decades ago, but has long since neglected.
Tom, of course, is a proud working class family man that wants
absolutely nothing to do with the man that abandoned him for his career
years ago, but Danny is a persistent chap and will stop at nothing to
support his son and his wife (a wonderfully sincere Jennifer Garner)…all
while trying to churn out a new song that will re-energize his music.
narrative trajectory of DANNY COLLINS seems fairly preordained from the
start. Of course, Danny faces
many obligatory roadblocks on his new path to spiritual re-awakening, but
Fogelman’s script is shrewd for how it absconds away from and subverts
audience expectations for this type of material.
Take, for instance, the central relationship between Danny and
Mary, which could have evolved into a one-note romance.
Bening plays Mary with a razor sharp tact and finds a way of
playing her smitten character with an independent minded gumption and
resolve. She fully realizes
what a huge celebrity Danny is, but she doesn’t make it easy for him in
his attempts to get her back to his hotel suite. As the film progresses and Mary and Danny’s relationship
matures she becomes more of a sound minded and pragmatic artistic muse for
him than anything else. Much
like Danny himself, the script here is insatiably flirtatious, pulling
viewers in and making them expect one outcome, only then to radically take
a detour not fully expected. It's terrific how the Danny/Mary story
arc never journeys down the path most followed approach, which
makes DANNY COLLINS a richer and ore rewarding film as a result.
Perhaps the most
crucial relationship in the film is between Danny and Tom, and Fogelman
sets up scenes of fairly preordained family conflict and strife, but then
never fully pays them off in manners we fully anticipate.
Ultimately, DANNY COLLINS becomes a film about breaking down large
and seemingly impenetrable barriers: Tom must find a manner of allowing
the man that he has hated for years back into his life and Danny too
searches for a way to meaningfully imbue himself back in his son’s life
without it coming off as a pathetic attempt at a simplistic, one note
apology for a lifetime of indiscretions.
Cannavale is a finer actor than he usually gets credit for, and he
acts as a wonderfully understated foil to the larger-than-life presence
that Pacino brings to the proceedings.
Tom is an understandably proud, but stubborn and bitter adult that
reveals layers upon layers of hurt that Danny has caused him.
When Tom faces a major health crisis in story, Cannavale must then
change gears and play his role with a touching level of heartfelt and
relatable vulnerability. He
brings so much integrity, truth and conviction to what could have been an
a generic role.
builds to a rather unexpectedly moving finale that features a concluding
moment between father and son that is about as pitch perfectly written and
acted as any final five minutes that I’ve seen in a film as of late.
Lesser films would have focused on Danny achieving musical
liberation with a rousing and climatic concert featuring his newly minted
material, but Fogelman astutely realizes that DANNY COLLINS is ultimately
not about achieving musical or artistic success.
Rather, the film is a small-scale triumph for its impeccably
rendered smaller scenes that comment on the frailty of the human
condition. That, and
Danny’s road to recovery – on multiple fronts – is never easy (he
arguably suffers from more failures than victories by the time the film
concludes, leaving the ending a bit ambiguous as to whether or not he will
turn back to his relatively comfortable pop star life).
But what really sells the film for me is how Pacino
miraculously plays his addict as a man that – despite his monetary and
celebrity success – grows to understand his remarkable failures in life
and tries to rectify them. There’s
a nuanced complexity that Pacino and his co-stars bring to the table
that helps DANNY COLLINS stand proudly apart from other heavy-handed