By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
I suspect there will be a spate of movies custom made for Baby Boomers as they proceed into the sexa- and septuagenarian periods of their lives. They will nurture and extoll the virtues of this mixed blessing that’s certainly better than the alternative. Call them the Dick and Jane films for golden-agers: i.e. — See Dick have a hip replacement; see Spot sympathize. Hopefully, most will be as entertaining as writer-director Dan Fogelman’s “Danny Collins.”
Supplying both affirmation and eloquently imparted nostalgia, the film chooses for its protagonist the iconic figure of a generation: the rock star. Portrayed with obvious dedication and no small insight into what a successful survivor of the ‘60’s music scene might be like, Al Pacino winningly applies his thespic wherewithal in this delightful paean to a much idolized cliché. While the plot structure is easy to predict, the initial impetus that sets it all in motion wistfully poses a philosophical “what if?”
Opening with a flashback, a 20ish Danny Collins is interviewed by a canny rock magazine writer, circa 1971. The sagacious scribe, chuckling with self-satisfaction, informs in no uncertain terms that his interviewee will be a major celebrity….rewarded for his talent with countless wheelbarrows of money and a steady stream of adoring women. He then asks the apparently shy troubadour, “Does that frighten you?”
The title character sheepishly answers, “Kind of.”
The prologue done, we meet Danny after he’s had about forty years to get over that apprehension…or has he? He seems to enjoy his $275,000 Mercedes-Benz SLS gullwing, and doubtlessly digs the multimillion dollar manse he drives it to after a day of being worshipped by fans at nearly every stop on his travels. OK, so the audiences he plays are filled mostly with folks who paid their way in with funds from their Social Security checks. Perhaps as compensation, the fiancée (Katarina Cas) who keeps his home fires burning is only in her twenties.
It’s par for the course. Name more than three rock stars who have marked their golden wedding anniversary. But if Danny is jaded, it is with the implicit suggestion that he is not beyond redemption. Otherwise, he’d be typical, boring and bereft of our concern. Which isn’t the sort of characterization that Al Pacino would bother imbuing with the full scale likeability that has come to be an attraction in and of itself. Thus, after an expository list of Danny’s life disappointments are catalogued with both comical and bittersweet charm, hope is dangled with a novel nuance.
Rather than being visited by the ghosts of Rock ‘n’ Roll past, present and future, the spiritual deus ex machina comes in the form of a framed letter presented to Danny on his birthday by long-faithful friend and manager, Frank, exquisitely realized by Christopher Plummer. Obtained from a collector, it is from John Lennon to Danny Collins, mailed some forty years ago, but intercepted and kept by a profiteer. The instantly hallowed missive, stating an admiration for the young songwriter who had been compared to Lennon, essentially says be true to thyself. Wow!
So this changes everything, right? Well, maybe. If Danny is to atone, he certainly has his work cut out for him. Job #1 would be to make amends to the grown son, Tom, he’s never met, effectively played by Bobby Cannavale. But sonny boy isn’t going to make it easy. Married to Jennifer Garner’s Samantha, with one little girl and a new baby due in a few months, he has made his own way and wants nothing to do with his famous dad.
Naturally, we’re rooting for the old guy, supported by our impression that he is a kind and generous poet at heart who, alas, was led astray by the bright lights and the seductive sirens of success. Sitting in the Woodcliff Lake, N.J., Hilton where he has encamped to deliberate and perchance win over his long neglected progeny, he cuddles the Lennon letter and wonders what path he might have taken had he received the cherished epistle. Would Lennon have taken the trouble if he hadn’t perceived some altruistic quality that even Danny himself didn’t recognize?
Hotel manager Mary Sinclair thinks not. Helping him ferret through the bevy of hypothetical quandaries he poses, she is the voice of reason, propriety and all things optimistic, winsomely played by Annette Bening. Though fending off all romantic advances, including a humorously unrelenting invitation to dinner, she is otherwise fully committed to her legendary patron’s reclamation. Now, that’s guest services.
Granted, although there is a bit of a twist, you know how this better come out…or else. But no matter. With a convivial cast and the great Pacino in the driver’s seat, the worn path “Danny Collins” traverses plays as alluring and fresh as a new hit song.
“Danny Collins,” rated R, is a Bleecker Street Media release directed by Dan Fogelman and stars Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale and Annette Bening. Running time: 106 minutes