DIR: Dan Fogelman • WRI: Dan Fogelman • PRO: Nimitt Mankad, Jessie Nelson • DOP: Steve Yedlin • ED: Julie Monroe • MUS: Ryan Adams, Theodore Shapiro, John Lennon • DES: Dan Bishop • CAST: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby, Cannavale, Christopher Plummer
Despite having carved a lionized career playing mordacious mobsters, murderers, moguls and mentors in crime thrillers, Al Pacino has peppered such tragedian roles with the odd foray into the sunnier comedy genre over the course of his forty-something career. While early comedy roles in films such as Dick Tracy and Frankie and Johnnie may have garnered Pacino critical success, later roles in lesser critically received comedies such as Stand Up Guys and The Humbling have failed to reposition Pacino with anything of significant weight outside his celebrated career as the introspective intimidator in Hollywood crime dramas.
In his latest comedy jaunt Danny Collins, Pacino stars as the eponymous ageing pop star who compromised his musical integrity for commercial success when starting out in the industry forty years ago. In spite of his enduring successful career, he has grown cynical and frustrated with belting out the same repetitive hits to an increasingly older audience. When he discovers a letter from John Lennon written in 1971 encouraging him to remain faithful to his musical integrity, it inspires him to take control of his creativity in the way he should have done a long time ago. He sets about righting the wrongs of the past and along the way encounters a new family, true friendship and a psychological battle composing the songs he feels he was truly meant to write.
Inspired by the true story of British folk musician Steve Tilston, who received a letter from John Lennon thirty-four years after he wrote it, assuring him that success would not compromise his songwriting abilities, renowned Hollywood screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid, Love. The Guilt Trip, Last Vegas) debuts his first foray into comedy as feature film director. With such screenwriting credentials and illustrious cast at the helm, it would be safe to assume that Fogelman should be able to elevate the over-familiar narrative of sentimental self-discovery into a refreshingly contemporary and cautionary tale about the malignancy of greed and success. Unfortunately, the hit-and-miss Fogelman is unable to draw on the screenwriting resources of some of his previous films, instead lapsing into the well-oiled narrative of transformation that Hollywood ubiquitously churns out by the bucket load. Evidently assuming this universal parable is not in need of refreshment, Fogelman repeatedly meets narrative expectations, which surprisingly for an experienced screenwriter, results in a somewhat indifference to his narrative, relying all too easily on Lennon’s soundtrack to bolster the film’s predictable ruts, of which there are far too many.
What was much needed in Danny Collins to leaven the formulaic narrative was to engage with the dark subtext that is sporadically introduced but let flaccidly hanging. In the hands of the ever-ruminative Pacino, the exploration of Danny’s morality and conscience; addiction, abandonment, manipulation of and by the industry, would have rooted his moral transition from self-obsessed, pitying crooner into worldly-wise family man, all the more tangible had his character been given the multi-textured attention Pacino is renowned for but is instead carpeted over with sugared-coated fluff. Indeed, it is the outstanding performances from its leading actors that saves Danny Collins from becoming another forgettable, twee comedy drama and Pacino can honourably salute his latest comedy role, which is nigh on flawless as the impish and childlike, washed-out, raspy crooner who balances the burden of self-destruction from the perilous trappings of show business with the emotional sensitivity of the first flushes of genuine love, friendship and family bonding. When given the opportunity, Pacino displays the emotional pain of the tragic loner with such palpable nuance; it is a tragedy in itself that this lack of emotional exploration into Pacino’s character, concealed behind the overuse of Lennon’s soundtrack, becomes a wasted opportunity and severe oversight by Fogelman.
Annette Bening is as infallible as ever and plays the perfect foil to Pacino’s roguish guff with understated sophistication and razor-sharp wit, while Christopher Plummer as Danny’s corrosive manager, is failed too often by misplaced vulgar dialogue, which is so painfully at odds with his character’s intent at times, that when he does express emotional humility, it appears alienating and disingenuous. The surprise revelation is Jennifer Garner who displays impeccable comedic timing and although remains within the boundaries of her habitual risk-free maternal roles, could have stolen the acting accolades from Pacino and Bening, had she benefitted from a more robust script and developed characterisation.
It would be expected that a film by a first-time director would contain many of the lesser-polished elements than would be customary from a more experienced filmmaker. However, it is not the direction that is the weakest component in Danny Collins but rather ironically, its immensely lethargic script that relies too heavily on thundering clichés that devalue the illuminating comedic performances from Pacino, Bening and Garner. Within a more solid and polished narrative of self-discovery, the conclusion would be fittingly apt, however, in the absence of this, it merely appears Fogelman has run out of steam or has just simply given up.
Danny Collins is, at times, an engaging and downright hilarious comedy drama that will have you laughing through the tears but this is simply owing to the sublime performances from its cast and not through a refreshingly new perspective on the hackneyed Hollywood narrative of transformation.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Danny Collins is released 29th May 2015