Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Danny Collins

To my boundless surprise, Dan Fogelman's "Danny Collins" is warm, witty, wonderful and wise.

This may be the only kind of part the Al Pacino of 2015 can pull off: a larger-than-life superstar whose personal life is as epic a failure as his career is a success. Danny Collins is a rock icon, modeled after Neil Diamond (his arm-waving signature anthem "Hey Baby Doll" an obvious allusion to "Sweet Caroline"). Danny hasn't written original music for decades, or needed to. His shows sell out the biggest arenas as soon as they're announced. But he's going through the motions, feels no connection to his obscenely age-inappropriate wife, and knows just how much booze and blow he can ingest without rocking the yacht.

On his birthday, Danny's agent Frank (Christopher Plummer) gives him a present: a letter John Lennon wrote to him forty years earlier, after reading an interview Danny did with a long-defunct rock magazine. Unfortunately, Lennon sent it to the editor, who, smelling money, kept it for himself. Frank bought it from the collector who bought it from the editor's estate, and now Danny can read for himself John's admonition to remain true to his music and not sell out - which is, of course, exactly what he's done. Lennon's words effect an epiphany on Danny, who promptly leaves his wife (assuring her it's okay she's been screwing around: "I was gonna make you sign a prenup anyway, so you didn't miss out") and boards his private jet for Teterboro.

What's in Jersey? It's not a what but a who: Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), the son (from a one-night stand) Danny's never met. Tom works in construction and has a happy family: loving wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and outgoing, hyper-energetic daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg, who manages not to overact in a role booby-trapped with the peril of precocity). But he's carrying around a lifetime's worth of anger and resentment at the absent yet ever-present Danny (the only fight Tom and Sarah have had in twelve years together happened the time she mistakenly bought him tickets to a Danny show), as well as another secret we're let in on midway through the film.

Danny checks into the Hilton Woodcliff Lake because of its proximity to Tom's Hillsdale home. He takes an immediate shine to the straight-talking manager, Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening), who rebuffs his repeated invitations to dinner. "But we have good patter," he tells her, and do they ever. The greatest of the film's many joys is the interplay between Pacino, whose cocksure bluster hides (or doesn't hide) a sea of regrets, and Bening, who never so much as adverts to the facile temptation to play Mary as a buttoned-up prig. Getting to have dinner with her isn't about romance - not really. There's a lovely recognition that despite the difference in their stations, he wants to earn her respect. "Danny Collins" is all about self-respect and slow, hard-won redemption, as Danny has a piano delivered to his room and sets about the work of writing.

The third terrific performance belongs to Plummer, pitch-perfect as the hand-holding Frank, who knows he only gets to level with Danny one time in a dozen and picks his spots with precision. Michael Caine had to back out of the part due to scheduling conflicts, and what an upgrade. A supporting nomination wouldn't be inappropriate for Plummer's knowing and funny turn. As for Cannavale, he may not be the subtlest of actors, but he shows here that he can hold the screen with two titans (I happen to think Bening can do no wrong - well, we won't talk about "The Face of Love"). He belongs. 

Credit must be paid to writer-director Fogelman, who also penned the first-rate animation "Tangled." He's constructed a story with enough substance to keep us engaged without devolving into treacle or contrivance. The last scene, while not as supremely special as "say anything…," immediately calls to mind John Cusack's and Ione Skye's long, anxious wait for the "fasten seat belts" sign to ding. I also want to credit Dan Bishop's production design. Except for one early concert at the Greek that's clearly not at the Greek, Bishop gets it all right: the massive billboard on the Sunset Strip, the DC-emblazoned plane, the tricked-out tour bus. The movie looks expensive; heck, even the poster looks expensive.

Ultimately, it's Pacino's show, and he comes through with his best performance probably since "Glengarry Glen Ross." It's tough to be that larger-than-life presence, the rock star who changes the vision of the valet or the hotel clerk just by staying at this nondescript little Hilton. Pacino conveys that difficulty with rare nuance and grace. My crowd gave "Danny Collins" a hearty ovation. What a great double feature it would make with the still-playing music doc "The Wrecking Crew."

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