A film review by Craig J. Koban April 30, 2015


2015, R, 106 mins.

Al Pacino as Danny Collins  /  Annette Bening as Mary  /  Jennifer Garner as Samantha  /  Bobby Cannavale as Tom Donnelly  /  Christopher Plummer as Frank Grubman  /  Melissa Benoist as Jamie

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. 

Fogelman, though, 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 auto-replay.

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. 

Again, the 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. 

DANNY COLLINS 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 inspirational melodramas.  

  H O M E