Pacino Carries Congenial "Danny Collins"

Scribe Dan Fogelman (“Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) makes his directorial debut with the uncommonly warm “Danny Collins,” a comedy-drama loosely based on a true story – and one whopper of a “what if.”

1971. A post-Beatles John Lennon writes a letter of admiration to a fledgling singer-songwriter inviting him to reach out, but the letter doesn’t reach its addressee for a full forty years – thirty after Lennon’s assassination. The recipient – in this case the fictional Danny Collins (Al Pacino) – has gone on to great success with a “Sweet Caroline”-style hit “Hey Baby Doll,” but in the twilight of his career remains deeply unfulfilled.

Upon receipt of the letter – a gift from his best friend and manager, Frank (Christopher Plummer) – Collins unavoidably takes stock of his life, wondering what might have been, poring over dusty, cobwebbed regrets like an old photo album.

Tired of his own insatiable thirst for drugs and women and fighting a bad case of the songwriting yips, Collins junks his affluent lifestyle to encamp in a suburban New Jersey Hilton.

It’s there that he finds friendship with a valet (Josh Peck, “Red Dawn”) and a desk clerk (Melissa Benoist, “Whiplash”) and an unlikely romance with a whip-smart hotel manager (Annette Bening). But the real reason for his Garden State retreat? To connect with the adult son he’s never met.

Tom (Bobby Cannavale, HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) has no occasion to get to know to his absentee father, but his wife (Jennifer Garner, “Dallas Buyers Club”) reluctantly takes to Danny immediately – as does their young daughter (Giselle Eisenberg). Fish-out-of-water comedy gives way to relationship drama as Danny tries to win over his long lost family.

The movie’s heavy use of John Lennon solo material is surprisingly effective and occasionally ironic, hitting emotional beats that no familiar father-son screenplay could. But it’s Pacino who’s naturally the film’s savior, making a predictable ride enormously enjoyable.

The film’s irony doesn’t stop with its use of Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” over shots of a decked out mansion. No, it crests with its longtime writer and first-time director getting top-tier work from his cast with a pedestrian screenplay. Bening is as charismatic here as she’s ever been – delivering a performance that hearkens back to her memorable turn in Rob Reiner’s “The American President” – while the perpetually underrated Cannavale matches Pacino blow for blow.

Their chemistry is evident from their first scene together, with the two having previously joined forces on a Broadway production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (where Cannavale played Pacino’s film role and Pacino played Jack Lemmon’s). The two are effortlessly believable as father and son, equally wracked with anxieties that give way to bouts of unexpected warmth.

“Danny Collins” is familiar to the bone, unabashed in its feel-good-isms. But with enough memorable bits of dialogue and cast to carry them home, it’s a very comfortable fit. Even if Pacino’s singing voice leaves much to desired, his performance doesn’t. Much like the film itself, it’s all in the execution.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: March 20, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Bleecker Street
Director: Dan Fogelman
Screenwriter: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale, Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Garner, Giselle Eisenberg, Josh Peck, Melissa Benoist
MPAA Rating: R (for language, drug use and some nudity)