Al Pacino was often lauded as the actor of his generation, an obvious successor to Brando (with whom he’d 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. It’s the setup of a Llewyn Davis-like shtick, but we’re 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 aren’t to Dylan, but to Neil Diamond. It’s clear that’s what they’re 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 Collin’s house, it’s some perfect location work. The locale is both epic and dazzling, yet reeks of such douchiness that it can only be a Hollywood mansion. It’s 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 he’s 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 film’s credit its more maudlin aspirations are often undermined by shifts in narrative. It’s 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, I’m betting.) I found myself thinking of another recent Pacino film, 2013’s Stand Up Guys, that also found its footing by a strong third act. What’s clear, of course, is that Pacino at least reads the scripts to the end before taking on the project, something that’s clearly lacking in many other performers his junior.
Danny Collins isn’t some revelatory work, but it’s charming in its own way. Pacino’s interplay with Jennifer Garner, Annette Benning, Bobby Carnivale and Christopher Plummer is quite good. The script has more bite than one would expect, and there’s a certain frisson when the characters actually say “fuck” when they mean to say “fuck” rather than, say, “dammit” or “heck”.
Director Dan Fogelman’s 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, it’s not exactly earthshattering, but it’s clear that in its own way Fogelman tries to be uncompromising.
Again, Pacino’s terrific, but given that the director already wrote a film starring Barbara Streisand, it’s clear that this film would have been downright epic if Neil Diamond himself played the role. Pacino can’t sing, or play piano, and the musical sequences when he tries to do so aren’t exactly endearing. Benning does her best to look enthralled as plinky, “Imagine”-style triads are struck on the Steinway, while Pacino’s hoarse and inarticulate singing voice speaks of Autumn leaves.
It’s a testament, I guess, to the narrative that these bits didn’t unhinge the whole thing, and I found myself engaged throughout in the story as it unfolded. Yes, there’s a bunch of wish fulfilment going on, but there’s almost as much darkness as there is light.
It’s perhaps more frustrating that there’s 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 doesn’t quite reach the heights to which it aspires. It’s a catchy and effective film, but one that I fear won’t quite make the greatest hits list for Mr. Pacino’s remarkable career.