Al Pacino‘s career: You Make the Call! This stage-trained, Shakespeare-loving actor has become known, in the latter part of his life, for over-the-top performances like “88 Minutes” and his Oscar-winning turn in “Scent of a Woman.” Should he a) rein it in and strive for the quiet intensity of his early screen appearances in the 1970s, or b) double down and go full-tilt-boogie?
Pacino, to his credit, has opted for c) all of the above. He’s definitely traveling the fascinatingly-subdued route in David Gordon Green’s “Manglehorn” (which just made its US debut at SXSW), and “Danny Collins” gives the actor a role that allows him to be the life of the party while also giving him plenty of two-hander scenes that let him interact with a talented ensemble on a very human level.
The movie itself is fairly schmaltzy (although, admittedly, not nearly as squicky as a plot synopsis might suggest) but as a showcase for what Pacino has still got in his paintbox in his mid-70s, “Danny Collins,” like “Manglehorn,” reminds us that there’s more to this guy than “Hoo-HAH!”
We first meet singer-songwriter Danny (or, rather, the back of his head) in 1971, when he admits to a rock journalist (played by Nick Offerman) that he finds the prospect of imminent fame and fortune more terrifying than gratifying. As we jump ahead 45 or so years, we see that Danny (Pacino) was right to be worried: Decades after his initial critical success, Danny Collins is a boozy, coked-up joke, singing the same dopey hits to arenas full of aging fans.
Danny’s got the mansion, the inappropriately young fiancée, the gull-wing Mercedes and the “Greatest Hits Volume 3,” but he finds satisfaction in none of this. It’s no wonder he’s so rocked by a birthday present from his best friend and manager Frank (Christopher Plummer): It’s a letter to Danny from John Lennon — sent to that journalist, who kept it all these years — telling him that you can get rich and still remain an artist, and inviting Danny to give him a call sometime so they could talk about music.
Danny sets off to New Jersey, setting up camp in a Hilton — and immediately flirting with the hotel manager, Mary (Annette Bening) — with two goals: write a song that isn’t crap, and build a relationship with his long-estranged son Tom (Bobby Cannavale), a construction worker who wants nothing to do with this flashy stranger.
Writer-director Dan Fogelman (“Crazy. Stupid. Love.”), working from what the opening card admits is at best a kinda-sorta true story, seems as torn as Danny is between his artistic impulses and his hard-wired attraction to bland, audience-friendly material. On the one hand, the story goes pretty much exactly where you think it will, but at the same time, “Danny Collins” generates its funniest and most dramatic moments precisely when the characters behave more like human beings and less like moving parts of what’s clearly intended to be a feel-good hit.
The movie has an anonymous, corporate sheen to it — cinematographer Steve Yedlin (“Looper”) might as well be shooting that Hilton’s welcome video — but it merits a look for Pacino’s interactions with his co-stars. He’s not all that convincing standing in front of a rock band, but his individual moments with Plummer, with Bening, with Cannavale and with Jennifer Garner (as Tom’s wife Samantha) feel genuine, whether they’re touching or amusing. (Pacino’s banter with Bening would be even better if Fogelman’s script didn’t force them to acknowledge every so often that they are indeed bantering.)
Fogelman does deserve credit for working with his actors, including young Giselle Eisenberg as Tom and Samantha’s daughter, Hope; she offers one of the screen’s more convincing portrayals of a kid with ADHD without overdoing it. (I just wish Fogelman didn’t try to get so much symbolic mileage out of her name.)
“Danny Collins” and its eponymous hero have two things in common: they really, really, really want you to like them, and they’re at their most lovable in those too-rare moments that they cut the crap and get real for a second.