On the way out of the noon showing of Dan Fogelman’s Danny Collins at The Carolina on Friday, a woman I didn’t know turned to me and enthused, “Wasn’t that wonderful?” She didn’t really want an answer; she just wanted to tell someone how much she loved the movie. Now, I could kvetch about how the film was contrived, determinedly feel-good, cinematic comfort food and shameless Boomer-bait. And all that would be true, but I more agreed with that lady than I didn’t. Maybe it’s because I am just as susceptible to Boomer-bait as anyone my age. How easy is it to really resist a movie with a soundtrack mostly comprised of John Lennon (post-Beatles) songs — even when (like the use of “Beautiful Boy”) some are a little too on the nose? Not easy at all — at least for me — but there’s more here than just a nostalgic soundtrack.
The film is very loosely based on a real incident involving a letter written by John Lennon to folksinger Steve Tilston that only found its way to Tilston 30-plus years later. In the film, Tilston has become the totally fictional Danny Collins (Al Pacino), an aging, self-indulgent rock star who’s been coasting on drink, drugs and the same old songs for years. Oh, he can still pack a theater — though he looks more like a bad Vegas act than a rocker — as long as he plays the hits his mostly aging fans recognize. He has a kind of fame, money, a posh house and a vapid trophy girlfriend (Katarina Cas) about a third his age. All this changes when his manager, Frank (Christopher Plummer), presents him with the lost letter as a birthday gift. The letter reminds Danny of the artist he wanted to be and makes him wonder how things might have played out had he received the letter and called Lennon at the phone number provided in it.
Resolved to put his life back on track, Danny puts his tour on hold, dumps his girlfriend (well, she was sleeping with some studly young man anyway), flushes his cocaine down the toilet and sets off for the wilds of a New Jersey Hyatt on a mission to find the son he never knew. Of course, he still dresses like his old rock star self, travels in his private jet, tools around in a high-end Mercedes sports car, has a Steinway grand piano put in his hotel room and plays his persona to everyone he meets. He’s not insincere exactly, but he can’t get away from the role he’s grown into — and that’s what makes the character more interesting than the film’s predictable path would suggest. He may start to flirt with hotel manager Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening) because it’s just what he does, but he becomes honestly interested in her in part because she’s not a fan and thinks his Danny Collins pose is more than a little ridiculous.
Little happens here you can’t guess — except for one melodramatic curveball that is fairly typical of first-time director Dan Fogelman’s other screenplays — but it’s that kind of movie. Like Danny Collins in concert, it delivers what you expect and what you want. It’s virtually a checklist of the conventions of the redemption comedy-drama film. Naturally, his son, Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), wants nothing to do with him, though Tom’s wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) is more receptive to him. Of course, Mary slowly thaws to Danny’s charm. There will be the expected missteps and disasters and so on. But this only conveys the mechanics of the story, not the essence of the film.
This is a movie that rises or falls on the characters, the performances and the chemistry of the actors. This is where Danny Collins scores — especially in the chemistry department. Al Pacino has mostly been an embarrassment for over a decade. The last really good thing he did was The Merchant of Venice in 2004. This may not exactly make up for things like 88 Minutes (2007) and Jack and Jill (2011), but it helps. It helps because Pacino has remarkable chemistry with not just Bening, but Plummer, Cannavale and Garner. They all fit so comfortably together that even the hoariest tropes become a pleasure. It may not make for a great movie, but it makes for a great time at the movies. That’s a worthy accomplishment all on its own. Rated R for language, drug use and some nudity.