In August 2010, English folk-singer Steve Tilston was contacted by a collector to verify the authenticity of a letter written to Tilston by none other than slain Beatles member, John Lennon. The letter was dated 1971, but unfortunately didn’t reach Tilston until almost forty years later. Lennon had been inspired to reach out to the young singer, according to the letter, after reading an interview with the artist in ZigZag magazine in which Tilston mentioned how he greatly feared the influence of wealth and fame on his personal ideals. Lennon tried to assure him that money does not and should not change the way that a person thinks and that if he should ever feel the urge to reach out, he would be happy to talk with Tilston at absolutely any time. He then signed the letter, “Love John and Yoko.” It is from this too-good-to-be-true tale that writer Dan Fogelman has drawn inspiration for his charming directorial debut, “Danny Collins,” an ensemble comedy starring a modest Al Pacino as the eponymous, Tilston-inspired solo artist. Though rocky at the start, “Collins” finds it’s footing thanks to Fogelman’s tender, funny script and its wonderfully colorful cast that stems from Pacino to spotlight top-tier work from reliable thespians like Bobby Cannavale, Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer, and the forever adorable Melissa Benoist.
Unlike Steve Tilston, however, Danny Collins did let fame and fortune direct his life, transforming him into a substance abusing, emotionally vacant curmudgeon with barely any amount of heart left for his fans, his beloved songs, or even his way-too-young sexpot of a wife who he knows is consistently cheating on him. His caring for much of anything has depleted; he’s accepted this as the end of his creative life and isn’t afraid to sniff enough white powder and pound enough bourbon to put him into the ground in the near future. But he finds a lifeline in the John Lennon-penned letter given to him for his birthday by his jazzy manager, Frank (Plummer), which instantly sets him on a course correction to mend his seemingly irreparable life.
Danny requests Frank to cancel his current tour (indifferent to the amount of revenue that will be lost) and then he relocates to an isolated hotel somewhere in New Jersey. He has his grand piano shipped to him, shoved into his hotel room and thus begins to write new, heartfelt work. He also sets out to try and make things right with his estranged son (Cannavale), a Jersey-bred everyman with a special needs daughter, a pregnant wife (Jennifer Garner) and a health secret of his own. At this point, even just after a first act rundown, I’m sure it’s pretty obvious where this film is heading. It forges its main character’s arc from this casual, redemptive story structure but watching Pacino take on the role with such quiet honesty and humility is a real treat. There are some struggles that Fogelman pushes through as a first-time filmmaker, but when the movie starts to open up in it’s middle act, Fogelman’s true thematic intent begins to become apparent.
Objectively and overarchingly, Fogelman hits every plot beat with precision and predictability. There aren’t many direct narrative surprises to be had (which is kind of a shame since Fogelman also scripted “Crazy Stupid Love” which was chock full of surprises) but Fogelman is talented enough as a writer to make the clichés feel fresh. Early on, “Danny Collins” comes off pretty desperate for laughs and I wasn’t entirely sure whom the film was hoping to appeal to. Pacino also doesn’t look overly comfortable in the role in his first few scenes and Fogelman’s ability behind the camera is questionable at best. Christopher Pummer is initially the only merited component, reveling in subtly offbeat and age-appropriate comic relief; he brings a looseness along with him that you wish the rest of the cast and Fogelman himself could showoff as well. Luckily, they begin to relax and settle in once Danny finds himself in New Jersey. Annette Bening provides an effortless rapport with Pacino’s Danny, playing an atypical, adult romantic interest whom Fogelman treats with respect and dimensionality. Melissa Benoist and Josh Peck (!!!) play hotel employees whom Pacino takes a great liking too, and then Jennifer Garner and Cannavale are both excellent, the latter continuing an amazing string of character work that is slowly but surely defining his on-screen presence.
The winning cast is truly the number one reason to give “Danny Collins” an honest look. I’ve always been a sucker for gifted ensembles and while this isn’t one that will rank among the very best of all time, what makes it such a joy to watch them all together is how radiant and easygoing they all are with each other. Plummer brings it from the very first frame he appears in, but by the time the film is wrapping up, everybody is so comfortable with themselves and with one another, it becomes impossible not to swoon over the natural sensibilities of these extraordinary performers. The casting of Cannavale as Pacino’s son is a stroke of genius in and of itself, but the two actors compliment each other immensely; the most emotionally involving scenes in the film revolve around these two actors together. Through their chemistry, Fogelman really ends up capping the film on a smile inducing, majorly uplifting high-note.
“Danny Collins” is as much about its titular character’s redemption as it is about the supporting characters accepting his flaws for what they are. Danny is an eccentric individual, and while his redemption proves to be a steep battle – each small victory representing merely a baby step – there’s a gratification in not showing Danny succeeding entirely. There are things he can do, there are things that he still fails to do, but all of the other characters benefit from one or two of these small victories while Danny will ultimately benefit from them all. The film comes to magnify the gap between the life that we fantasize about and the life that we actually live out, and even though Danny ended up succumbing to his worst fears over a multiple decades-long career, the words of a deceased, though immeasurably influential music legend gave him the confidence to at least consider putting the pieces back into place.
Dan Fogelman hasn’t made a masterpiece but he’s made a suitably crowd-pleasing light comedy with some really warm performances that should do right to find cross-generational fans. It most likely won’t be remembered as one of the finest works of the year, but it definitely is of the most charming.
Review by Mike Murphy
“Danny Collins” expands into Boston area theaters today, including AMC Loews Boston Common 19, Kendall Square Cinema, and Coolidge Corner Theatre.