Legendary as Al Pacino’s skills are, he wouldn’t be the first actor I’d cast to play a 70ish pop star who still fills mid-sized arenas some 40 years after he last charted a hit single.
Yet Al Pacino sells the heck out of his performance as Danny Collins, who knows when he takes the stage in his flashy ensemble, he’ll be greeted by swooning middle-aged women waving their arms back and forth while singing along to his horrifically cheesy and yet undeniably catchy signature tune, “Hey Baby Doll,” and if Danny sounds a little bit like Neil Diamond and “Hey Baby Doll” reminds you of “Sweet Caroline,” sit right here with me because I thought so too.
But Neil Diamond comes across as a reasonably content pop superstar, whereas Danny Collins is miserable. As we learned in the preamble to writer-director Dan Fogelman’s sweet and charming if utterly predictable tale, the young Danny Collins was a Dylan-esque singer-songwriter who worshipped John Lennon. When Lennon became aware of this, he penned a letter to Danny, inviting the young musician to call him — but the letter never made it to Danny’s hands.
Cut to present day. After that first album of his own songs, Danny sold out and started singing pop tunes written by others — and he was such a huge commercial success, there’s a new billboard on Sunset Boulevard touting Volume 3 of his greatest hits. He lives in an arena-sized mansion with his 30ish girlfriend (Katarina Cas), he’s recognized everywhere he goes, and on his latest birthday, hundreds of adoring friends and associates turn out for a big blowout.
What a life. And of course Danny is completely depressed. From his fake tan to his dyed hair to his glittering outfits to his drinking and drugging to having to sing that infernal “Sweet Baby Doll” 200 times a year, Danny is trapped in a purgatory of his own making.
Danny’s manager and best friend Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer), who carries an ever-present bottle of sparkling water in his hand so we continually get the message he’s an alcoholic, has a special birthday gift for Danny: the letter John Lennon wrote to him all those years ago. (This element of the story is based on a true incident. Lennon wrote a letter to a young musician named Steve Tilston in 1971 — but the letter didn’t reach Tilston until 2005.)
The letter is a proverbial game-changer. Danny cuts short his tour, ends things with the girlfriend he knows has been cheating on him and bids Los Angeles goodbye for the charms of the Woodcliff Lake Hilton in New Jersey. He has a piano crammed into his room, with the intention of writing some new material. He’s also ordering up a big old shot of redemption — make that a double — in every way imaginable.
The soundtrack features a number of Lennon classics, and while those songs are as powerful and moving as ever, they also remind us that even Danny’s new, heartfelt, substantial music isn’t even in the same league as his hero’s.
Pacino, who has been famous for about as long as the character he’s been playing has been famous, is perfect in the many scenes in which valets and hotel clerks and customers in the bar realize he’s Danny Collins. He delights in delighting them, turning on the charm in the blink of an eye.
Annette Bening provides screwball romantic comedy relief as Mary Sinclair, the manager of the hotel, who befriends Danny and seems utterly smitten even as she turns down his daily invitations for dinner. Melissa Benoist is sweetly effective as a college student working the front desk for the hotel.
There’s a heavier storyline about Danny’s attempts to connect for the first time with his 40-year-old son Tom (a stellar Bobby Cannavale), the product of a one-night stand. As if that’s not dramatic material enough, Fogelman gives Tom’s family not one but two serious medical situations. One would have been more than enough.
Jennifer Garner sparkles as Tom’s pregnant wife, who nudges the bitter Tom into at least talking with Danny. If Danny wants to buy his way into their lives by providing their child with some much-needed help, so be it. She’s loyal to her husband but practical about her family’s situation.
Danny stumbles and screws up along the way, but even the darkest moments in “Danny Collins” are predictable speed bumps. Just like “Hey Baby Doll,” this is supposed to be a feel-good number, and as such it works just fine.