by: S. Scott Stanikmas
In Dan Fogleman’s directorial debut, Danny Collins, the screenwriter-turned-director has made a heartwarming film that goes through some of the tropes of a “guy looking back on his life and trying to correct his mistakes” movie without feeling formulaic.
We first see the titular Collins in the early 70s, a budding musician just coming into his own but scared of the possibility of success and what that may do to him. The scene feels like comes straight out of the same universe as Cameron Crowe’s love letter to 1970’s rock and roll, Almost Famous. From there we jump ahead forty years into the future where the young man is now an aged lounge lizard (Al Pacino), living off of his past and content to be an act in the vein of Wayne Newton or Neil Diamond (he even has a “Sweet Caroline” sounding theme, the infectious “Hey Baby Doll”, which gets the blue dot crowd singing and swaying).
With Danny’s upcoming birthday, of course he’s bound to feel reflective as to what his life has become. When his longtime friend and manager (Christopher Plummer) gifts him with a letter written to Danny by John Lennon forty years earlier, the singer begins to take stock of his life and question the choices he’s made. You see, Lennon saw a bit of himself in Danny Collins and told Danny to stay true to himself and never let the business dictate who he should be. Unfortunately, due to an unscrupulous journalist, Danny never got that letter. Now he’s left to contemplate what his life could have been had he decided to stay true to his craft and not the almighty dollar.
Setting out for New Jersey of all places, Danny Collins begins the journey of finding his true self and getting back to his roots. Part of that involves holing up in a hotel room at the local Hilton and flirting with the manager (Annette Benning). The second half of that requires Danny to reconnect with Tom, the (now adult) son that he was never there for (Bobby Canavale), and the family he missed out on, including his son’s wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg).
Al Pacino as the spray tanned and pompadoured singer was as excellent a role as the actor has portrayed recently. He can certainly dial it up to the max and become the wild and crazy guy we’ve all seen before – you know, the one who gets lampooned by every impressionist in clubs and on TV sets across America – hands flailing about, voice volume rising and falling intermittently. Here, Pacino certainly keeps up his gift for gab; smooth talking everyone from the valet at the hotel to the prestigious doctor that runs a special school for kids with special needs. Where he excels is with the smaller moments where he dials it back, and we see the more subdued, more restrained Pacino of his earlier years.
Much of these quieter moments are played out through Pacino’s eyes. He just has this look throughout the movie of a sad puppy dog, the kind of eyes that say deep down he hurts, but he doesn’t know how to say it because everyone expects him to be “ON” all the time and all he wants is to just slip back and be human. It’s especially on display as he lies awake in bed after receiving the Lennon letter, wondering what path his life could have taken, had he been given the chance to be saved from the commercial side of the business by the former Beatle.
Dan Fogleman certainly has a gift for words. His dramatic scenes had real resonance and feeling to them. They seemed familiar but not forced. The screenwriter of past hits like Crazy, Stupid Love and Last Vegas crafts a wonderfully heartfelt tale that has crackling dialogue and sharp wit.
Music producer Don Was and musician Ryan Adams collaborate on the original ballad “Don’t Look Down”, a lovely song that serves as Danny’s personal redemption, his proof to himself that he still has a soul deep down. The rest of the soundtrack is made up of a plethora of post-Beatles John Lennon songs, of which Fogleman made the best use of. At a Q&A in Boston, he spoke of being surprised by getting the rights to whatever he wanted to use, but made sure that he didn’t just put a song in because he could. He felt like the music should feel organic and (coming from someone who doesn’t much care for the Beatles or Lennon’s music) it truly does, never intruding, always feeling like it rises and falls naturally.
The only fault I found was wanting to see more between Bening and Pacino. This duo’s time onscreen together was too short, as those two had tremendous chemistry and “good patter” between them.
In the end, Danny Collins is an excellent film from this rookie director. With a tight script, excellent cast and wonderful story I’m excited to see what Dan Fogleman comes up with next.