We meet Al Pacino’s Danny Collins after a tantalizing glimpse of the promising but petrified young singer. Eric Michael Roy, who plays him on camera, and Davide Donatiello, who does his voice, look and sound uncannily like the real Pacino in his youth, when his tortured-soul realism was Method acting at its most electric. Cut to the older Collins, a perpetually smashed, paunchy sellout dabbing on the spray tan before heading on stage to deliver yet another canned concert. It’s a jarring juxtaposition, since Danny’s expertly faked enthusiasm and outsized gestures evoke Pacino’s jazzed-up speeches in big-budget hokum like Gigli, S1m0ne, Devil’s Advocate, and Scent of a Woman. But the show Danny puts on for his geriatric fans is only one small piece of a beautifully modulated, gently bemused performance by the actor, who just might be identifying with his character’s thirst to regain the artistic purity and passion of his youth.
Danny’s journey begins after a scene or two in his coldly luxurious L.A. home. A shot of several beautiful young women in bathing suits lying by the pool at his birthday party while late-middle-aged men in suits eye them from behind their dark glasses nicely sums up why he needs to escape. Then Danny is given a letter John Lennon wrote to him when he was a young man, which was sold to a collector instead of being delivered to him. (The film was inspired by the story of singer Steve Tilston, who got that letter from Lennon in 2005, though the similarities between his story and Danny’s end there.) Gobsmacked by the letter’s message of encouragement and the phone number Lennon included, Danny wonders what might have happened if he’d gotten it back in 1971 and made the call, then decides it’s not too late to return to his authentic self. He promptly dumps his gold-digging fiancée, cancels his tour, and checks into a hotel in New Jersey, where he tries to establish a relationship with Tom (Bobby Cannavale), the son he’s never met, while getting back to his songwriting roots.
That all happens within the first few minutes, and the rest turns out as one might expect. But Pacino and his co-stars enliven the tidy narrative progression and resolution. Cannavale and Jennifer Garner, who plays Tom’s wife, transcend their worst instincts, the former dropping the exaggerated blue-collar machismo and the latter the dimply desperation to be liked that often curdle their performances. And the soundtrack is as well chosen as the cast. Danny’s ludicrous hits (the most popular is called “Hey, Baby Doll”) and the Leonard Cohen-ish ballad he composes in the hotel help establish his character, the first telling us all we need to know about the schlock rock charade that is Danny’s life as a star, and the second demonstrating that he could have made it on the folksinger circuit if he hadn’t let go of that dream. The only other songs in the film are post-Beatles ballads by Lennon, whose lyrics and melodies are so clean and clear that they work even when their subjects dovetail a bit too neatly with the plot.
The actors can’t surmount all of the script’s contrivances. The love story Danny tries to engineer between the hotel’s carhop (Josh Peck) and its desk clerk (Melissa Benoist) is so faintly sketched it barely registers—which may be just as well, since his insistence on fixing them up based on nothing more than the initial impression that they both have “wonderful faces” is actually kind of creepy. But the chemistry between Pacino and his cast mates—particularly Cannavale, a gimlet-eyed Christopher Plummer as Danny’s manager and old friend, and Annette Bening as the skeptical hotel manager Danny reflexively flirts with—gives this lightly amusing contrivance surprising emotional resonance.