Danny Collins opens with a cute joke about how true a story it’s based on. The real story is John Lennon wrote folk singer Steve Tilston a letter in 1971, but Tilston didn’t receive it until after Lennon’s death. Even if nothing interesting ever happened in Tilston’s career (which I doubt), you surely could have embellished something better from the real Tilston than Danny Collins.
Danny Collins (Al Pacino) is a rock star who still trades on his big hits at his sold out tours. After discovering the letter John Lennon wrote him in 1971, Collins leaves his too-young girlfriend and sets up shop at the Hilton in New Jersey, where he starts writing original music again and tries to reconnect with his estranged son Tom (Bobby Cannavale).
The script by director Dan Fogelman calls out the movie cliches where Danny pops into Tom and his granddaughter’s lives and buys their love, but Danny Collins is just making the other type of movie. This is the one where they confront life’s hardships with a whimsical sense of humor, so it’s never too edgy for people in the audience. I want to see Pacino play the hard living has-been, but this is not that movie.
In the film’s minimal performance scenes, Pacino has the stage presence of a rock star, without overdoing it on the moves, since he is playing someone with a 43 year career behind him. The one hit that seems to be his albatross sounds pretty good to me, but it is the only original song we’ve heard, because this isn’t Walk Hard, and it’s not even Get Him to the Greek. They can only afford to write one new song.
Well, there’s the hit, and the one song he’s writing in the Hilton that’s supposed to be his redemption. I don’t care how good that song is, you need a whole album to jumpstart your career. A pivotal character moment seems to suggest he has to choose whether to play the hit or the new song. Hello, you play at least two songs in a show. He can do both. Most professional singers save their hits for the encore anyway, or at least if they open with hits they say, “Hey, let me play you something new I wrote.”
The symbolism of Danny’s self-destruction is so blatant it’s aesthetically offensive. The last scene can’t even help telegraphing the final minute of the movie, and it has to completely invent something brand new to pull it off.
The best part of Danny Collins is Christopher Plummer as his manager Frank. They have fun banter and Plummer is just fun as the behind the scenes man who’s cleaned up after Danny all these years. Otherwise the dialogue is too precious, from hotel manager Mary (Annette Bening) rebuffing Danny’s advances to Tom making a point that he’s an uneducated construction worker but speaking the way an educated writer imagines the working class.
Danny Collins had potential to be an entertaining romp with Pacino as a rock star finding his art again, but instead it only plays at having edgy problems. It means well but if it’s going to be this mild, it should stick to mild themes. There are perfectly good movies about career success and dysfunctional families. Don’t play the drugs and abandonment cards if you’re not going to really go there.