Monday, April 27, 2015
Danny Collins Movie Review
There’s hardly a more heartbreaking story of a once great acting talent becoming a washed-up caricature of bombast and overacting than Al Pacino. He was such a marvel in the 70’s. He was good-looking with the most expressive eyes of any actor of his generation. His delivery was subtle and always perfect. When I look at him now, I don’t even see the same man. His sad hangdog face obscures the depths that used to reside within. Every now and then, as in Donnie Brasco, he has flashes of greatness once again. Some have been giving similar accolades for his latest, a heartfelt story of redemption called Danny Collins, written and directed by Dan Fogelman.
I think expectations have sunk so low for Pacino that simply phoning it in and not shouting makes everyone believe this is a return to form. I will say that he has some good moments as the title character, a pop musician whose own career could be compared to Pacino’s, but all in all this is neither a film nor a performance worthy of the man who made Michael Corleone and Frank Serpico come to life on screen.
Danny Collins is inspired by not quite a true story, but I guess a true circumstance or event. A British musician named Steve Tilston (who was never as famous as the fictionalized version of himself) came into possession twenty-five years after he started out of a hand-written letter from John Lennon giving him advice and urging him to call for a chat. He included his home number. A collector intercepted the letter and held onto it until he sold it decades later. Fogelman took that kernel of a beginning to a story and fleshed out an ageing star who continues to perform thirty-year old hit songs (which also happen to be his latest hits) before a crowd of senior citizens. When his manager (Christopher Plummer) presents him with the letter as a birthday gift, he begins questioning his entire life and career. If he had called Lennon, would his advice to stay true to his art have kept him honest and stopped him from turning to drugs and the perpetual performance of a catchy tune called “Hey, Baby Doll” (which, by the way, calls to mind Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” with its sing-along nature)?
I will not give a pass to any movie just because its heart is in the right place or that it has good intentions. Fogelman’s film plays out as if his screenplay was a first draft that he never bothered to take any notes on. It is an abject failure of human understanding with regard to motivation. The emotional centerpiece is the relationship of Danny to his estranged son Tom (Bobby Cannavale) whom he has never met. Tom is the product of a one-night stand Danny had with a groupie and he bears inexhaustible animus toward the man. Don’t you have to have a relationship with someone to have been disappointed or injured to such a degree that you have hatred in your heart? But Danny gets back into his Tom’s good graces in the space of twenty-four hours with a bold gesture to help get his granddaughter into a special private school in Manhattan.
Of course the inevitable fall from grace comes following a concert at a small New Jersey venue where Danny hopes to debut a new song he’s written. But the crowd just shouts “Baby Doll” until he relents and plays it. This kind of crowd behavior is an unbelievable ploy to get Danny snorting coke and boozing again, which is itself just a means to have a falling out with his son so we can reach the second redemption. The screenplay is so calculated that it’s the first time I’ve ever identified the screenwriting tools on a first viewing.
The wonderful Annette Bening salvages the scenes in which she appears as Mary, the local Hilton Hotel manager where Danny is staying. She becomes his love interest, confidant, foil, and friend on his road to recovery. She is full of charm, smiles, good will, and reasonable and measured conversation. And at times there’s real chemistry between her and Pacino. Jennifer Garner plays Tom’s wife, a woman who serves as the conduit of reconciliation between the two men. Pacino is truly at his best during his scenes with these two women. But it’s not enough.
Fogelman squanders the one really interesting idea buried within the story. That is whether or not a person can make a major life change based on newfound knowledge of something that should have come to him when he was young. It would have been worth exploring in a deeper context the notion that one’s life would have turned out completely differently if only this thing had happened. Honestly, Danny probably would have gone down more or less the same path regardless. Fogelmen could have explored that and brought Danny around to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what happened or didn’t happen forty years ago. What matters is how you handle yourself now. But that’s some other better movie. Fogelman already missed his opportunity. Perhaps some years from now someone will point that out and he can wonder what might have been.