' ' Cinema Romantico: Danny Collins

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Danny Collins

Although “Danny Collins” is a fictional musical biopic, rooted in many of the genre’s customary clichés, it emits real-life autobiographical context in the form of its leading man. Al Pacino, after all, is a once-great acting titan now often reduced to wandering (hollering) in film star winter. That’s a fairly apt description of Danny Collins himself, a formerly great singer-songwriter who hasn’t penned a tune in thirty years and now plays the same Neil Diamond-ish hit over and over. The first time we see him, in fact, he’s putting on a helluva show, even if it’s obviously hollowed out, which is sort of like any latter day Pacino grandstanding performance. You half wonder if Al sits in his dressing room between takes with a tumbler of scotch, staring forlornly into the void, a la Danny Collins. Eventually, though, Danny gathers the seeds of a potential rebirth, and in doing so, you see Pacino himself truly take the reins of this turn.

“Danny Collins” is sort of like the easy listening version of “Crazy Heart.” The latter was the predictable rise, fall and semi-resurrection of a singer-songwriter, but there its character – the more ominously named Bad Blake – was truly washed up, playing bowling alleys and getting from gig-to-gig in a beat-up pickup truck, having to buy off-brand whiskey, ye gods. His redemption, of sorts, was triggered by bottoming out and going to rehab. Overall, the film was cuddlier than its rough & tumble synopsis suggests, but nevertheless its character knew truly hard times. The hard times of Danny Collins are more like the hard times of the 1%. Maybe he’s a sellout but his selling out has yielded grand extravagance; a chic home, an attractive (and really young) wife, souped-up sports car, the whole nine yards and just a bit further. And his come-to-Jesus moment isn’t really about touching bottom; it’s about being touched from on high. It seems John Lennon himself wrote a short letter to Danny Collins back when the latter was on top of the charts, advising (warning) him to stay true to his art. That letter, however, never made it to Danny – until now, that is, in the form of a birthday present from Danny’s manager (Christopher Plummer).

Deeming his career a colossal waste, Danny Collins cancels his tour and re-locates to a New Jersey Hilton where he promptly moves a grand piano into his room, purportedly to compose actual fresh material. There’s more to it than that, of course, as there must be, specifically in the familial troubles dogging him. And so, he seeks out the son (Bobby Cannavale) and daughter-in-law (Jennifer Garner) and granddaughter (Giselle Eisenberg) he has never seen, claiming he can’t buy his way to redemption even though that is more or less what he does. Still, it doesn’t strain credulity because Danny Collins is quite clearly a man used to hurling money at problems to fix them, and he can’t fully fashion his reclamation until realizing that simply being there for people is the necessary tonic. The sight of the shrunken man in suits only really suitable for ostentatious stage shows in tacky Vegas casinos patiently sitting in a hospital waiting room is a wonderful merging of the real world and the world Danny has always inhabited.

He’s made to sit in a hospital waiting room because his son, it turns out, has cancer, a twist which takes the film one crisis too far. It’s best when it play lighter, such as in its sequences at the New Jersey hotel where Danny Collins practically floats in on a billowy cloud, all smile and “patter”, playing matchmaker to the shy valet and bubbly front desk clerk. Danny also finds new love in the form of Mary Sinclair, the hotel manager. Her character is a predictable part nonetheless played to stone cold perfection by Annette Bening with a mixture of coyness, cordial toughness and the ever-present inkling of  genuine affection for the good intentions that lurk behind the over-the-top lapels of this in-your-face lothario.

If Danny Collins initially comes across like a caricature, it is the down-to-earth Mary that lends crucial aid in seeing through the pizzazz for the person. She’s there, of course, for him to lean on, to listen to his new song and provide encouragement as well as notes, not much else, but there is such delightful vivacity to their “patter”, such authenticity in their chemistry that it hardly matters. And the film, refreshingly, never forces them to fall in love, but rather just revel in the presence of the other. Mary helps Danny remember what it was like to just have fun and not phone it in, and “Danny Collins”, bless its soul, helps Al Pacino do the same.

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