Al Pacino was often lauded as the actor of his generation, an obvious successor to Brando (with whom hed inexorably be linked both artistically and diagetically). With a string of astonishing roles in the early 70s, his powerful performances practically exploded off the screen, be it his chill Corleone, his sly Serpico, or his delightful Dog Day diatribe.
Danny Collins begins with the artist being interviewed back in 71. Asked by a beautifully bearded (and uncredited) Nick Offerman about which musician makes him hard, the up-and-coming Collins answers with John Lennon. An obvious choice, perhaps, and a little on point, but we see from that moment of artistic ambition some of the fear in the eyes of young Collins. Its the setup of a Llewyn Davis-like shtick, but were not set in the land of the singer-songwriter for long.
Smash cut to Pacino, now all besequined and bedazzled, scarf draped cape-like over his shoulders as he struts through the motions of some hoary hit. Octogenarians look positively frisky as they mime the actions of the stage act.
The parallels arent to Dylan, but to Neil Diamond. Its clear thats what theyre going for her (alas, no middle-aged woman threw up her panties, as per norm at a Neil show), but the sing-song of Hey, Baby Doll is a thin disguise of Sweet Caroline, complete with horn hook and second chorus use of sweet to make its point.
So, yes, the artist has lost his way, trading authenticity for excess. The lovely Mercedes gullwing car, the preposterous LA home, as all intact, even if his soul is broken.
As an aside, wherever they shot Collins house, its some perfect location work. The locale is both epic and dazzling, yet reeks of such douchiness that it can only be a Hollywood mansion. Its as perfectly cast as any of the actors, a location as apt as any that Paul Thomas Anderson seems uniquely qualified to cram into his own epics.
When Collins gets a gift reminding him of how far hes strayed from a pure path, he heads to a Hilton in New Jersey where the core of the story takes place.
The setup is pretty straightforward, but to the films credit its more maudlin aspirations are often undermined by shifts in narrative. Its the opposite of most films it starts in a pretty hamfisted way, but finds its feet by the second half (long after many have checked out, Im betting.) I found myself thinking of another recent Pacino film, 2013s Stand Up Guys, that also found its footing by a strong third act. Whats clear, of course, is that Pacino at least reads the scripts to the end before taking on the project, something thats clearly lacking in many other performers his junior.
Danny Collins isnt some revelatory work, but its charming in its own way. Pacinos interplay with Jennifer Garner, Annette Benning, Bobby Carnivale and Christopher Plummer is quite good. The script has more bite than one would expect, and theres a certain frisson when the characters actually say fuck when they mean to say fuck rather than, say, dammit or heck.
Director Dan Fogelmans credits include scripting the likes of Last Vegas (risible), The Guilt Trip (oy, vey), and Disney/Pixar films Cars/Cars 2, Bolt and Tangled (really?). As a debut, its not exactly earthshattering, but its clear that in its own way Fogelman tries to be uncompromising.
Again, Pacinos terrific, but given that the director already wrote a film starring Barbara Streisand, its clear that this film would have been downright epic if Neil Diamond himself played the role. Pacino cant sing, or play piano, and the musical sequences when he tries to do so arent exactly endearing. Benning does her best to look enthralled as plinky, Imagine-style triads are struck on the Steinway, while Pacinos hoarse and inarticulate singing voice speaks of Autumn leaves.
Its a testament, I guess, to the narrative that these bits didnt unhinge the whole thing, and I found myself engaged throughout in the story as it unfolded. Yes, theres a bunch of wish fulfilment going on, but theres almost as much darkness as there is light.
Its perhaps more frustrating that theres a really great film in there somewhere, one that looks at the travails of success. Danny Collins has the makings of something terrific, but it doesnt quite reach the heights to which it aspires. Its a catchy and effective film, but one that I fear wont quite make the greatest hits list for Mr. Pacinos remarkable career.
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