Danny Collins Written and directed by Dan Fogelman; with Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Plummer, Giselle Eisenberg
There are some good scenes in “Danny Collins,” the first film directed by writer Dan Fogelman, whose many screenwriting credits include animated features such as “Cars” and “Tangled” and comedies such as “Last Vegas” and “The Guilt Trip.” In the end, however, “Danny Collins” is a perfect example of a whole that is less than the sum of its parts, some of which are quite good in themselves.
Fogelman’s movie was inspired by the real-life story of the English singer-songwriter Steve Tilston, who in 2005 discovered that John Lennon had sent him a letter back in 1971. Lennon’s handwritten letter encouraged the young musician to follow his own artistic path and never compromise, and it even included the Beatle’s private phone number.
Based on this incident, Fogelman tells the story of a fictional rock singer, Danny Collins (Al Pacino), who since becoming a star has done nothing but compromise and live a reckless life of sex, drugs and bad rock ‘n’ roll. While Collins is on tour, playing mostly to fans his own age (he calls the women cheering him from the front row “the golden girls”), his agent and only friend (Christopher Plummer) brings him a birthday present: a letter that John Lennon wrote him in 1971 after reading an interview with the young Danny, then still filled with musical ideals (the letter was sent to the journalist, who never passed it on).
Danny, whose black-dyed hair and disheveled clothing make him look like a caricature of an aging rock star, is deeply flustered by the discovery. If he had only received the letter in time, he believes, his life as both an artist and a man (he has been divorced three times) would have unfolded differently. Still, he thinks, it is never too late; the long overdue letter seems to him a sign that he must change both his personality and his art.
A movie based on this story could have been a wise human comedy with a streak of melancholy severity; Ethan and Joel Coen might have pulled it off. But Fogelman, as a writer and now as a director, is entirely the product of contemporary Hollywood, which relies on formulas grown threadbare with use. He aims only to give viewers a “feel good” experience (a movie that does not live up to this goal has almost no chance of being made in Hollywood today). “Danny Collins,” as a result, falls short of its own potential to explore the salvation of an artist and a man.
Danny’s transformation after receiving the letter is too immediate to be convincing. One of the movie’s main flaws is that we never learn what kind of artist he was at the start of his career and what made him change along the way. Because Pacino is not a singer, the movie does not show us Danny performing for more than a few seconds here and there. According to the movie, Danny had at least one major hit, “Hey Baby Doll,” which his aging fans now demand at every performance. But even when the transformed Danny begins to write “quality” songs again, the results did not strike me as anything other than banal (the one new song we get to hear meditates gloomily on the passage of time, using the image of falling leaves).
What makes it even harder for us to appreciate Danny’s art is Fogelman’s decision to include in the soundtrack some of John Lennon’s best songs, which are apparently supposed to represent Danny’s motivation in his efforts to change: he instantly kicks his drug and alcohol addiction – perhaps the fastest rehab process ever seen on screen. Not only does the beauty of Lennon’s music bring into relief the limitations of “Danny Collins,” but we can never quite figure out what a masterful song such as “Working Class Hero” has to do with Danny, since we know almost nothing about his life before he became a somewhat grotesque aging rock star.
Danny does not change completely. His wealth is still an important part of his life – for example, he immediately buys himself a new red Mercedes – and he plans to use his money to make amends where it matters the most: he has a son he has never met. The role that money plays in Danny’s life and transformation might have added a satiric dimension to the plot, but Fogelman ignores this potential. Instead, money figures into the new bond between Danny and his son – who at first wants nothing to do with him – in a way that is unpleasant to watch.
The son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), works in construction and lives in New Jersey with his pregnant wife, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), and his sweet daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg), who suffers from an attention disorder. In order to be close to the family he did not know until now, Danny moves into the local Hilton hotel. Contrary to his longtime habit of dating only much younger women, he begins a relationship with the hotel manager, Mary (Annette Bening), who admits that she cannot stand his music. She and Danny develop a kind of witty repartee that is supposed to remind us of the classic romantic comedies of the 1930s and Fogelman, as a writer and now as a director, is entirely the product of contemporary Hollywood, which relies on formulas grown threadbare with use.