'Danny Collins': Film Review

Pacino's long-in-the-tooth rock star is the whole show in this obvious dramedy.

Al Pacino plays an aging rock star in need of an oil change in this sentimental journey.

After playing an on-the-skids old actor in The Humbling, Al Pacino takes on the role of an aging rock star in need of an oil change in Danny Collins. As amusing as it initially is to see the ever vital actor swanning around as a sort of grizzled cross between Peter Pan and Dorian Gray, a boy/man who never really had to grow up, screenwriter Dan Fogelman's directorial debut doesn't take long to reveal itself as thoroughly cutesy, cornball stuff. The top-notch cast makes this Bleecker Street release almost tolerable, but the spectacle of a dissolute hedonist suddenly acquiring a heart and a conscience late in life is shamelessly, and shamefully, contrived in its emotional trajectory.

Fogelman's busy track record as a screenwriter on the likes of Cars 2, Bolt, The Guilt TripTangledLast Vegas and Crazy, Stupid, Love bespeaks both glib proficiency and a pronounced urge to please rather than to leave the main road to find what lies beyond. So there may be a nugget of self-regard at the heart of this story about a singer who can still fill the Greek Theater (with crowds of graybeards and "Golden Girls") abruptly deciding to chuck a lucrative national tour when a challenge to his complacency presents itself.

The trigger for Danny's uncharacteristic leap into the unfamiliar realms of self-assessment and responsibility is perhaps the most interesting detail in the film; it's also the only real element in it. Fogelman was jump-started to write the script when he learned of a bizarre happenstance in the life of a songwriter and musician named Steve Tilston, who, in 2005, came upon a supportive fan letter John Lennon had written to him in 1971 but that he had never received. The handwritten note also included the ex-Beatle's phone number with an implicit invitation to call.

This belated and haunting discovery prompts the question for both the real and fictional intended recipient: What if he had received the letter and called Lennon? What if they had hit it off? Would the younger man's life have been drastically different? Might Tilston have played on "Mind Games"? Perhaps Danny Collins would have gotten serious and become more like Bruce Springsteen than Neil Diamond, upon whom he appears at least partly based.

It's not an unpromising jumping-off point for a story of legitimate conjecture and self-exploration. But instead of having Danny throw out the jumpsuits, junk the hair dye and get behind the wheel of an old pickup to search for some roads not taken, Fogelman puts him in a private jet for a flight to rural New Jersey, where he settles into a Hilton to be near the son he doesn't know, one who —can you believe it? — has a little girl, another kid on the way and, to top it off, a life-threatening disease.

At his age, Danny isn't a likely candidate for reform. He does lay off the drugs and booze, but he buys a $100,000-plus car rather than renting one and can't stop hitting on every woman around, most notably hotel manager Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening), who grins, bears it and says no the many times Danny asks her out to dinner.  

From here, the film becomes as cloying and obvious as a bad old-fashioned sitcom. The son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), resents the old man for ignoring him his whole life and rebuffs his offers of financial help. Tom's wife (Jennifer Garner) watches her belly get bigger. The granddaughter (Gisele Eisenberg) is adorable for five minutes and annoyingly hyperactive thereafter. And his manager (Christopher Plummer) wants him back on tour. It's just one surprise after another.

Having installed a grand piano in his hotel room, Danny intermittently faces up to the real challenge posed by the John Lennon letter, which is to write some songs of his own for the first time in decades. (He's primarily identified with an ancient hit called "Hey Baby Doll.") Can a singer who's taken his superficial charm and modest talent to the bank his whole life suddenly go deep to mine unexplored realms of sensitivity and profundity? Could Britney Spears become Leontyne Price? Could Michael Bay morph into Stanley Kubrick?

Although the answer is obvious, Danny decides to do a show at a small venue to try out his new material. The meanings to be gleaned from this event could not have been spelled out more literally by a junior high school English teacher, so cloyingly obvious and formulaic is everything that Fogelman is getting at here. 

Still, there is a certain pleasure to be taken from Pacino's flamboyant performance, which fills and sometimes saturates the screen. He's the whole show, even if everything that's being asked of him here — the outrageousness, the extravagance, the blithe acceptance of instant gratification — remains strictly on the surface. Whatever else might be lurking deep within this man has either been erased by drugs and the easy life or is too banal to merit scrutiny. 

Nothing extra is asked of, or received from, the fine actors lined up to support the star turn, and production values are ordinary.

Production: ShivHans Pictures, Handwritten Films

Cast: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Plummer, Nick Offerman, Josh Peck, Katarina Cas, Giselle Eisenberg, Melissa Benoist, Scott Lawrence

Director: Dan Fogelman

Screenwriter: Dan Fogelman

Producers: Jessie Nelson, Nimitt Mankad

Executive producers: Denise Di Novi, Shivani Rawat, Declan Baldwin, Monica Levinson

Director of photography: Steve Yedlin

Production designer: Dan Bishop

Costume designer: Sophie de Rakoff

Editor: Julie Monroe

Music: Theodore Shapiro, Ryan Adams

Casting: Mindy Marin

R rating, 108 minutes