danny_collins_02Three great stage actors in one movie: Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale and Christopher Plummer…Did you know Al wrote a fan letter to Christopher Plummer? That Bobby Cannavale used to bless his opening night by saying Al would come to the show? Watch and hear all about it:

Ahhhh, and for the folks who want to READ their way through this review…Here is the transcript. (but i warn you, you’re missing the Al Pacino interview…)

I have a question for you.  Why is genuine heart so disparaged in Hollywood?  Do they think we don’t want to feel good?   True, there is the risk of tripping over that fine line and falling headlong into schmaltz, but there’s nothing wrong with trying a little tenderness in a movie.

That’s what Dan Fogelman, writer of Cars, Tangled, and Crazy Stupid Love, hopes to prove with his directorial debut Danny Collins: that a movie with genuine heart will be embraced by audiences.  And why shouldn’t it when this warm, old fashioned story offers up two of America’s best actors, Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale?  When you throw in two perpetually undervalued actresses known for navigate roles with nuance, Annette Bening and Jennifer Garner, and multi award winning Christopher Plummer and impressive newcomer Giselle Eisenberg in supporting roles, and it becomes quite an ensemble.  This ensemble, along with some well written and truly exquisite scenes of familial intimacy, raises this movie from feeling dangerously similar to a Hallmark movie to something to be savored and enjoyed.

The plot is a twist on the familiar. Self-disgusted human jukebox Danny Collins is dissatisfied with his vapid pop star existence devoid of depth or real purpose.  Coking it up with his 20-something “fiancee” and applying last minute spray tan before singing the same 40 year old song “Hey Babydoll” to thousands of aging fans just isn’t cutting it anymore. Change is in order.  In this case the catalyst for self-examination and desire for change shows up when his best friend and manager Frank Grumman, played by Christopher Plummer, gifts him a 40-year-old undelivered letter from John Lennon advising Danny he can be famous and still stay true to his art and his personal growth.  Even after 40 years, Lennon seems to have played just the right mind games. 

Collins moves into a New Jersey Hilton near his family, where he chats up no-nonsense, unimpressed manager Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening) with pick up lines that work best with the sycophants he’s left behind, and on her not at all.  He also attempts to reconcile and get to know Tom Donnelly (Bobby Connavale) the illegitimate child he’s never met who wants nothing to do with him.  Tom is too busy making a decent living for his pregnant wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and ADHD little girl Hope, played by Giselle Eisenberg, who is like a little actress savant- she’s so naturally good, she can act with Al Pacino and steal the scene.  Collins will have to work very hard to find real authenticity, both with this family and in himself.   

Writer director Fogelman uses the true story of folk singer Steve Tilston getting a letter from Lennon as inspiration for a story about redemption, fearlessness, disappointment, and stardom.  He also poses questions about shifting family dynamics, forgiveness, and the responsibility we have to ourselves to strive to be more, at any age.  Folgelman isn’t reinventing the wheel here.  He’s just sitting there watching it go round and round…He uses a few tried and true dramedy plot devices, like pulling the cancer card —by giving the life threatening illness to one of the characters.  It would seem more cliched if not for the realistically written and portrayed scenes of quiet intimacy that capture how family members deal with it and each other, for better or worse, under the circumstances.

If it all sounds like the film should be called “Calling All Baby Boomers”,  you’re not entirely wrong.  The soundtrack, for one thing, is almost exclusively original songs by John Lennon, strategically placed to punctuate scenes and interaction in the script.  Yoko Ono allowed the use of Lennon’s songs, which she rarely does.  That’s one Boomer Goddess giving the film a rousing testimonial.     Fogelman elevates the story with a few good plot twists and some really great dialogue, especially as he juxtaposes the simple comfort in the way Tom and Sam interact and speak to each other against the awkward, shallow banter shared between Danny and Mary.

There are some loose spots at several points in the script, like in the scene where Danny crumbles in the face of his demanding fans.  It’s questionable whether 40 years in the business of crowd control from stadium stages would leave him without the manipulative skills necessary to shut down any fan shenanigans.  But we love and want that lovable scamp Danny (or maybe it’s Al) to succeed so badly we will maintain hope and see him through to the end.

Really what makes this film so watchable is the authenticity of the characters and dialogue, as well as the stellar acting.  Every time the film threatens to dip into clichéd Schmaltz the actors lift it up. The ensemble work here elevates the film.  Pacino shows he has a love of the script, story, and character, and makes Danny someone to champion, even as pathetic as he has become.   His scenes with both Plummer and Cannavale are like actors’ workshops.   And why not?  It’s pretty much the mutual admiration society.

A fun fact about the making of this indie is they recorded the big Danny Collins number live with the audience at a concert for the band Chicago, during the intermission.  They taught the crowd “Hey Babydoll”, and filmed it in less than 20 minutes!  That’s the sort of thing that makes Danny Collins enjoyable.  The mix of the flamboyant and subtle.    Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale show that subtlety when they share the last scene of the movie.  That last 5 minutes makes the entire film.  It is a thing of beauty. 

I loved Danny Collins but i’m a diehard Bobby Cannavale and Al Pacino fan, and l have personal connection to several of the plot devices, so Danny Collins rang very true to me.  Still, whether you’re a Baby Boomer or one of their babies, flaws and all you might want to tuck into this old fashioned dramedy about a man who chooses, as John would say, to no longer ride on the merry-go-round. 

3 out of 5 stars