In the 1970s and ‘80s legendary actor Al Pacino had the impeccable ability to disappear completely into every one of his roles, including as Michael Corleone in the “Godfather” movies, as Frank Serpico in “Serpico” or the bank robber Sonny in “Dog Day Afternoon.” His range was astounding.
However, around the late 1980s and through the ‘90s — in movies like “Scent of a Woman,” “The Devil’s Advocate” and “Heat” — he began delivering over-the-top, scene-chewing performances that often involved lots of yelling. He stopped being the chameleon-like actor and became more recognizable from movie to movie. He developed an onscreen persona of sorts that would occasionally drift into caricature, and the quality of his film roles began to decline pretty rapidly. Looking at his filmography in the 2000s, “Insomnia” is the only film that comes close to being great.
“Danny Collins,” written and directed by Dan Fogelman, represents a slight step in the right direction for Pacino, who gives a soulful, funny and overall three-dimensional performance. It’s too bad the movie itself is a cliché-ridden mess that never quite finds its footing.
Pacino plays the titular Collins, a once-talented singer-songwriter now making the casino rounds, singing his greatest hits to a room full of old ladies wearing oversized T-shirts printed with the names of his popular songs. Meanwhile, off-stage, he’s tired and depressed, snorting lines of cocaine and hanging out with his much younger girlfriend. On his birthday, however, he discovers that John Lennon wrote him a letter in 1970, one he never received. This startling discovery motivates him to make amends with his son Tom (Bobby Cannavale), whom he’s never met.
As that plot recap suggests, “Danny Collins” can be painfully by the numbers and dull. While the Lennon-letter hook is interesting, Fogelman doesn’t really do anything interesting with it. Instead, it’s simply used to tell a bland, sentimental story of family and a washed-up star’s quest for redemption.
Yet, Pacino is entertaining to watch. After finding out about the letter, Collins’ disposition goes from tired and self-destructive to upbeat and peppy. He clumsily flirts with Mary (Annette Benning), the owner of a hotel he stays at, cracks corny jokes whenever possible, is naïve about technology, tries to budge his way into Tom’s life and be chummy with his wife, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), and daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg). With his long, combed-back hair and tendency to wear old, tacky suits, Collins appears to be stuck back in time, with all self-awareness seemingly out the window.
While this shtick can be a little too cloying at times, it at least shows signs of life in Pacino. He puts energy and enthusiasm into the role, making the most of the generic material, and eventually he sort of drops the corny-grandpa shtick and settles into whispery-voiced solemnity. Not surprisingly, Collins’ talky, high-energy attitude is mostly a guise, masking deep-seeded feelings of regret. Cannavale is equally strong as the defensive, embittered, estranged son, and the one-on-one scenes between Pacino and him are the best, most authentic scenes in the whole movie.
The rest of the cast — Garner as the supportive wife, Benning as the uptight and snarky love interest and Christopher Plummer as Collins’ grouchy manager and loyal friend — all do fine work, making you wish the movie were better.
There’s a great movie buried somewhere in “Danny Collins”— you can see it in those raw, intimate exchanges between Pacino and Cannavale. To his credit, Fogelman shoots those scenes as straightforwardly as possible, forgoing any overbearing music or other flourishes to try and amp up the emotions.
Otherwise, the movie is close to being a disaster. The script doesn’t cut deep enough and resorts to clichés too often. The threat of cancer is introduced halfway through and plays a major role in the rest of movie. It’s established that Hope has ADHD, but, like with the “Lennon letter,” Fogelman doesn’t explore this particular issue in any great depth, making it feel tacked on to generate more emotion from the audience and justify Hope’s presence.
Tonally, the movie is all over the map, moving back and forth from authentic drama, to schmaltzy drama to comedy. The full-on comedic portions, in particular, can be utterly painful to endure, coming off forced most of the time. Pacino and Benning are supposed to have a banter-y dynamic, but try as they might, they simply don’t. They don’t have good comedic or romantic chemistry in the slightest, causing most of their interactions to divulge into sheer awkwardness.
In the end, “Danny Collins” is more frustrating than bad. Pacino’s legendary status is still intact, despite a decade of mostly dud movies, and this picture is proof that he has great performances left in him — he just needs to find a better script. I remain hopeful that Pacino, now in his 70s, will star in at least one more great film.