★ ★ ★
The conventional wisdom is that Al Pacino has spent the last 20 years of his career yelling nonstop, but that’s a facile stereotype. While he’s no longer the soft-spoken ball of coiled energy who made Michael Corleone an iconic character, he still shows a far greater range than those who would reduce his style to a shouted “hoo-hah!” are implying. This is exemplified by his work in Danny Collins, a modestly scaled comedy-drama from writer/director Dan Fogelman.
Pacino portrays the title character, a celebrity singer in his golden years who still commands a substantial audience, albeit one that’s a lot older than his crowds in the early ’70s. He’s tired of playing the same songs, wary of marrying his latest half-his-age girlfriend, and still doing more cocaine than anyone his age should. But then at a birthday party, his loyal and straight-talking manager (Christopher Plummer) gives him a gift that changes his life.
It turns out that Danny mentioned that John Lennon was his idol in one of his first big interviews, and the ex-Beatle wrote him a personal letter offering advice and telling him to call if he wanted to talk about his work. Lennon sent his missive to the interviewer, who sold it to a collector instead of delivering it to the intended recipient. Now believing that his life and career could have turned out differently—he became famous for singing other people’s tunes, despite beginning as a songwriter—Danny heads to New Jersey to connect with a grown son (Bobby Cannavale) he has never met.
Danny Collins follows an undeniably overworked story line; when the plot takes a melodramatic turn halfway through, it’s almost a disappointment because there’s great pleasure in watching the unforced naturalism of the performers. Pacino is wonderful here as a man who has grown used to easy adoration, but ultimately wants something more. Annette Bening plays the manager of the hotel Danny stays at while trying to connect with his son, and their conversations have the convincing air of people old enough to banter with ease, but wise enough to know there’s more to life than that.
The movie is at its best whenever Pacino and Cannavale share the screen. They worked together on-stage in a 2012 production of Glengarry Glen Ross, and while they’re both actors who are comfortable bringing an outsize energy to the big screen, they’re achingly subtle here even when the material isn’t. Their final scene, in which they wait together for test results from a doctor, could easily have been played for maximum pathos, but neither one makes the emotions bigger than necessary. They are masterful throughout the movie.
While the cast keep the melodrama limited to a human scale, the screenplay isn’t above manipulating us with a cute granddaughter suffering from a learning disability, and making a lethal health scare the inciting event to push the estranged father and son into each other’s lives. These cloying choices, along with the on-the-nose use of John Lennon’s solo songs, all turn out to be things the actors need to overcome, rather than elements that enhance the mood.
There’s a loose ’70s vibe to the movie: The camerawork is unforced, and the director and actors clearly trust one another. If the script had been as subtle as the performers, or if Fogelman had anything unique to say about life, death, fathers, and sons, Danny Collins would have been a major work. However, the superlative acting still makes it a film worth checking out.