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'Danny Collins': The film's premise is promising but the protagonist is a theatrical conceit

As written and directed by Dan Fogelman, star Al Pacino's role never allows the actor much opportunity to cut below the surface.

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    Al Pacino takes on another washed-up-guy-mounts-comeback role (world of music this time) in ‘Danny Collins.’
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In “The Humbling,” Al Pacino recently played an aging actor who had lost faith in his acting. In “Danny Collins,” he’s playing an aging rock star who long ago lost his muse. What’s next for Pacino – an aging novelist who can no longer face a blank page?

Critically if not commercially, “The Humbling” was a triumph for Pacino – his best work in years. As the renowned, dissolute stage actor Simon Axler, he poured all his protean energy into the part but dropped his usual flamboyance. His force field was inner-directed this time.

As Danny Collins, he’s working with far less resonant material. Pacino is not unbelievable as a Neil Diamond-ish rock star. Shimmying in front of a packed amphitheater of graying fans, he gets to sing an oldie Collins hit called “Hey Baby Doll,” and his pipes are OK. It’s just that, as written and directed by Dan Fogelman, the role (until the moving final scene) never allows Pacino much opportunity to cut below the surface. Danny is a theatrical conceit rather than a full-fledged character.

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This is unfortunate because the film’s central premise is promising. The boozy, womanizing Danny is about to launch a national tour when a fan letter from John Lennon, written to Danny in 1971 when he was just finding his own way as a promising singer-songwriter, is presented to him by his longtime manager (Christopher Plummer). 

Danny had never received this newly discovered letter, which included Lennon’s home phone number. Would Danny’s career – his entire life – have been radically altered if he had met up with Lennon? (Something like this actually happened to a British musician named Steve Tilston in 2005, which became the jumping off point for this film.)

Instead of exploring this outcome, Fogelman veers into standard weepy-comic terrain. Danny, who spends his money as fast as he makes it, checks into a Hilton hotel in rural New Jersey, buys a fancy red Mercedes instead of renting a car, and proceeds to seek out the son he never knew. The son (Bobby Cannavale), of course, bitter at Danny’s abandonment of his mother, wants nothing to do with Danny, even though he (a) hasn’t a great deal of dough, (b) has a hyperactive daughter with special-education needs, and (c) has a life-threatening illness. I almost forgot: His wife (Jennifer Garner) is pregnant.

So the stage is set for a redemption drama-comedy, with Danny doing his wheedly best to get into his son’s good graces. Money can’t buy love but then again, it can, sort of – at least if you can pay for a full private school tuition complete with chauffeur, etc. 

Meanwhile, what becomes of the Lennon letter and its repercussions? Not much. Danny installs a grand piano in his ordinary-sized hotel room and tinkers a bit on a new “personal” song that is not remotely as grabby as “Hey Baby Doll.” (He hasn’t composed a new song in 30 years.) He dogs the unimpressed hotel manager (Annette Bening) until she finally breaks down and goes on a dinner date with him. Naturally she sees the good in Danny and encourages his songwriting.

When he finally attempts to unveil the “new” Danny at a local club packed with aging fans, the predictable ensues. At this point the film loses its way entirely. Are we supposed to think that Danny is actually better off playing his oldies for oldsters, or are we meant to believe he didn’t have the gumption to reinvent himself as the artist he might have been? It’s difficult to know how to take all this, since Danny’s personal song, at least to my ears, sounds pretty blah. At least “Hey Baby Doll,” maddening as it is, has a bouncy hook. The movie becomes, perhaps inadvertently, a celebration of selling out. Grade: C+ (Rated R for language, drug use, and some nudity.)

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