Movie review: In ‘Danny Collins,’ Pacino helps us imagine a Lennon story
The true story that the fictionalized “Danny Collins” is based on goes like this: A 21-year-old British folk singer named Steve Tilston started to see his career rise. In 1971, he was interviewed by the British rock mag ZigZag, and the discussion came around to fame and fortune possibly getting in the way of artistic success.
John Lennon read the piece and was moved to send a note of encouragement to the up-and-comer, along with his phone number, in case Tilston ever wanted to chat. But Tilston never received or even knew about the letter. It was sent to the magazine, where someone kept it as a collectible.
In 2005 Tilston, who had made a living, but never achieved stardom, in music, was contacted by a collector and told of the letter.
The fictionalized film goes like this: A 21-year-old American singer named Danny Collins is sent a letter by John Lennon — yes, that part is told close to the way it happened. But in this story, Danny Collins (Al Pacino) went on to huge success, reaching Neil Diamond-like heights.
Now in his 60s — and wearing a truss! — he lives in a palatial house, his third-greatest hits album has just come out, and adoring fans — all of them of “a certain age” — know all of the words to his schmaltzy pop songs, and sing along at concerts.
One day, his manager Frank (Christopher Plummer) surprises him with a gift: that letter, bought from a collector, Lennon signature, phone number and all, now framed. The rest of the film is worth the look on Pacino’s face, simultaneously realizing what a cool gift it is and wondering what his life would have been like if he got it all those years ago, and maybe dialed that phone number.
The film turns into a great playground for Pacino. His performance, sometimes carefully nuanced, sometimes free-spirited, runs through situations that range from uplifting to downtrodden, from funny to straight-out crisis mode.
First-time director Dan Fogelman has long known his way around words. Along with this film, his writing résumé includes the hilarious Disney film “Tangled” and the serio-comic “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” (Lots of punctuation going on in that title.)
In “Danny Collins,” he seems to have picked the right actors to say his words, and shows a quiet flair for directing them in how to do it. It’s really a story of very different relationships between very different people, with Pacino involved in all of them.
The best is between Pacino and Bobby Cannavale, as Tom, the son Danny walked out on decades earlier and now tries to mend fences with, even though Tom’s anger has never subsided. A much lighter side of things is seen with Pacino turning on the charm and trying to get a dinner date with Mary (Annette Bening) the manager of the Hilton where he’s settled in to reboot his life.
But the most natural and relaxed relationship is the one between Pacino and Frank, whose day job is being his tireless manager, but is more like his best friend.
The real drama comes in when Danny tries to visit not only the son he never got to know, but his son’s wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and their granddaughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg), neither of whom he’s ever met.
Some of that drama comes on a little thick, like in a double-header helping of one person
with a chronic condition, and another with a disease. But these elements are pretty much treated with kid gloves and while presented seriously, don’t come across as cloying or depressing.
In the end, the funnier stuff outweighs the sober stuff. It’s great to hear the older Frank, after so many years together, still calling the not-much-younger Danny “kid.” Fogelman tosses in a sweet, completely unrelated side story, of Danny trying to get a couple of young workers at the hotel — Jamie the receptionist (Melissa Benoist) and Nicky the valet (Josh Peck) to become, well, a couple.
There’s also the amazing feat that Fogelman pulled off: using John Lennon songs, sung by Lennon, as a sort of Greek chorus to some of the plotlines.
Another slight glitch is that an extra dose of drama finds its way into the script in the last act, and the idea of Danny rising and falling and rising again happens too quickly. But Fogelman and his cast pull it all together, and the film closes with an up-in-the-air, yet quite satisfying ending.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by Dan Fogelman. With Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Plummer, Annette Bening.