“The following is kind of based on a true story, a little bit,” reads the epigraph from Danny Collins.
From the very beginning, Danny Collins nods to the kind of movie that it is while recognizing what it doesn’t want to be. Everything on the outside makes Dan Fogelman’s (writer of Cars, Crazy Stupid Love and Last Vegas) directorial debut seem like a Lifetime movie of the week: the queasy biopic elements, the TV movie aesthetic and the “inspirational” theme that “it’s never too late to turn your life around and find redemption.”
Yet, in the canon of sentimental schlock, Danny Collins is a quiet revelation, a film that subverts all expectations and becomes quietly sentimental and poignant without ever feeling manipulative or cheap. It’s a film that plans out all the beats it will hit and does indeed hit them, but maybe not in the way we first foresaw.
Danny Collins (Al Pacino), a character based on Steve Tilston, is a washed up 70’s rocker who made one set of singles and rode the fame persistently until his old age. Danny lived the stereotypical rocker’s life, with extravagant partying, drug addiction and sexual promiscuity with younger girls. Years later Danny still does the same things – his fiancée is a young gold-digging blond, he throws excessive parties at his mansion and when he goes on stage he plays those same old hits.
It’s only when his manager and long-time best friend, Frank (a very funny Christopher Plummer), gives him a lost letter from John Lennon that he begins to rethink his lifestyle. A younger and more idealistic Danny Collins said in a 1971 interview that he was afraid of fame and wealth because he thought it would corrupt his art. Lennon read the interview and wrote to Danny to give him hope that one can stay true to oneself despite popularity. That hand-written letter was lost but eventually found by a collector who sold it to Frank.
Danny sees the letter as an opportunity to begin a new chapter in his life by returning to the ideals and virtues he held before money and fame corrupted him. So, he cancels his tour and goes to New Jersey to begin a relationship with a middle-aged son, Tom, who was conceived during a one night stand. Tom lives modestly in a suburban neighborhood with his pregnant wife and a daughter, and he manages to live respectably and happily despite the paternal void in his past.
Can you hear the mechanical gears churning? What if I told you that Tom had cancer and that Danny’s granddaughter suffered from ADHD and needed money for treatment? Would you roll your eyes or puke in your mouth? Admittedly, the film sets up pay-offs and elements that seem pretty cheesy, but this is part of why it works so well.
Danny flirts with the hotel manager, but is it likely she’ll become his girlfriend? He quickly kicks the drugs and rock lifestyle aside to virtuously repair the parts of his life that he neglected, but will it last? Danny starts to write new artistic songs that deal with his pain instead of being satisfied with riding the old pop hits he wrote years ago, but will he ever have the courage to play it in concert? Real life is where all the “buts” come from and the film does well to recognize them. Danny may find redemption and have a relationship with his family, but it won’t come as easily or simply as you may have thought. The fantastic optimism of the film seems to reflect Danny’s new found idealism and it’s fitting that when his virtues break down so does the movie’s formula.
The screenplay not only excels with delivering drama but it is also quite funny. There is plenty of witty banter and references to pop culture icons like Bruce Springsteen, Rick Trivino and Mary Anne from Gilligan’s Island (and many others which I’m too young to catch), and the comedic tone is funny and clever without being overly so, which would diminish the power of the more emotional parts.
Because Fogelman shows little personality as a director, the grunt work is done by the excellent cast, not the visual styling. Most of the film is simply shot like a network television show, so what really separates Danny Collins from an average soap or sitcom is the strong performances. Al Pacino naturally wears years of regret and pain on his old wrinkly face, and Bobby Cannavale is well cast as his son and is able to perfectly bounce his lines off the old veteran. The pair’s strong on-screen presence is what makes the emotions believable despite being within a very constructed and potentially manipulative framework.
By the end, Danny Collins is appropriately inspiring and uplifting because it understands that without the pain and the struggle the triumph is less meaningful. The film might stay true to its formulaic inspirations, but this is hardly a fault. The element of fantasy in Hollywood cinema, the aspects that make it “kind of a true story,” are what raise us out of our pain and tell us that optimism and happiness is indeed possible and it’s never too late for redemption or to turn things around.
Danny Collins breaks away from its Lifetime movie trappings thanks to the way it toys with cliches and a number of touching performances from a cast led by a superb Al Pacino.