Al Pacino is rightfully considered one of the world’s greatest living actors, though you couldn’t be faulted for not remembering a truly great Pacino performance in the past decade or so. Part of that is because, even now in his mid 70s, he keeps getting cast as detectives, gangsters, and other loud tough guys that might be better played by non-senior citizens. But with Danny Collins, we get a terrific, hilarious, and utterly age-appropriate Pacino as an aging pop singer who shares Pacino’s penchant for chewing scenery, but in the most charming way possible in a film that totally won me over. Watch the trailer for Danny Collins below.
Pacino plays the titular Danny Collins, whose acclaimed first album and comparisons to John Lennon had him destined for singer/songwriter superstardom. But the pressures and trappings of fame spun him on a more commercial path, and forty years later, Danny is a depressed, cheesy (albeit profitable) nostalgia act playing greatest hits for aging sold out crowds who don’t care that Danny hasn’t written a new song in thirty years.
But on his birthday, Danny’s longtime friend and manager (a sage Christopher Plummer) gives Danny a reminder of the artist he could have been in the form of a letter John Lennon sent to a scared young Danny (who never received it) inviting Danny to call him while encouraging him to stay true to himself and his music. Realizing the impact the letter would’ve had on his life, Danny decides to sequester himself in a New Jersey Hilton and write new songs that recapture the songwriter he used to be. This will also give him a chance to finally meet his struggling adult son Tom (Bobby Cannavale), his wife (Jennifer Garner) and their adorable chatterbox of a daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg, who you’re sure to see more of soon). Annette Bening is excellent as the Hilton’s manager, keeping the film emotionally grounded while providing the outsider’s perspective of someone who likes Danny but is wary of his charms and wholly unimpressed with his stardom.
While Danny Collins is a comedy that’s not trying to change the world, it’s a film that manages to do everything right, which is not easy for a film that wants you to feel sympathy for a rich, famous, beloved celebrity who never bothered to meet his only child. However, all that is tempered by the fact that I’ve never seen Pacino as funny and likable as he is in Danny Collins, with plenty of room to make such an original-feeling character his own as he rides the highs and lows of the life he’s created. Instead of the shouting and raving that has turned Pacino into a popular comedic impression, we get a smooth-talking, charm-oozing pro who knows that a joke or compliment from him could be a story someone tells for a lifetime, which makes the suspicion and rejection he feels from his own son that much more painful.
Yet as extraordinary as Danny’s life is, the emptiness he feels for spending the majority of his life singing the same songs into the ground feels oddly relatable, as does the sting and resulting galvanization Danny feels upon discovering the alternate path his life was seemingly supposed to take. Danny Collins can be enjoyed by just about anyone, but it’s older audiences who can most likely relate to the grind of years of unsatisfying work and questioning whether it’s too late to create a different destiny. And these days, it’s amazing how refreshing it can feel to watch a movie unabashedly made for adults.
But Danny Collins isn’t just about showbiz. It’s about family, regret, second chances, friendship, inspiration, perseverance, and artistic integrity in a film where all of the actors give some of their best performances I’ve seen in years, or maybe ever, punctuated by a soundtrack made up almost exclusively of John Lennon’s original songs. Amazingly, the premise of Danny Collins is based on the true story of a British folk singer who received a letter from Lennon 34 years after it was written. But even more surprising for me was how much I enjoyed this film, which thoroughly delighted me and even left me with a tear in my eye. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had at the movies so far this year.