Danny Collins (2015)
Dir: Dan Fogelman
Starting with the statement that ‘the following is kind of based on a true story a little bit’ creates a slightly deceptive tone from which to build a film largely about accepting difficult truths.
Danny Collins (Al Pacino) is an ageing rock star who receives a letter written to his younger self by John Lennon 40 years after it was sent, causing him to re-evaluate his life, work, and prompting him to reach out to a son he’s never met.
I enjoyed this film more than I thought I might. This is certainly not the first film to show an ageing star re-assessing their priorities, so I assumed (not entirely incorrectly) that I’d have seen it all before and be unsurprised by it. Sure enough, most of the story felt very familiar, though the few little differences, certain plot turns, and more importantly the solid performances meant it was still an enjoyable viewing experience overall.
Your enjoyment of this film will depend much on if you can warm to the eponymous character or not. For me the prospect of an elderly rocker who has lost touch with his art and is touring his well-worn greatest hits while living the clichéd life of drink, drugs and a younger model girlfriend, wasn’t particularly appealing. However that’s not all the character turns out to be, luckily he has further depths and a history (surprise surprise) which opens up another world to him that doesn’t require all the other stuff for the story to work. If I’d have thought it was a film about a man trying to win over his estranged son and family it would possibly have appealed to me much sooner.
It’s a shame then that the better part of the film isn’t quite 100% in the way it develops. Everything feels like it comes too easily for Danny, one morning he wakes up exuding warmth and charm then goes about winning people over despite their protestations. I think that’s a little unrealistic, I’d like to see some characters hold tougher stances or for longer, making Danny put in more effort and hard work. It’s said ‘he never gives up’ but demonstrating that pushed further would say a lot more about the character, sadly he throws money at things far too much whereas focus should be put more on the emotional support that really counts. Don’t misunderstand me, that’s also there and shown to be what’s important but the throwing money and stuff at people is shown just as often, so it muddies the waters a little. Only his songwriting and trying to reinvigorate his career is shown to be truly difficult for him, though I’d prefer it to be the other aspects that he has to give his all to.
A lot of why the film works is the cast and performances. The story isn’t anything incredible, but so many of the characters are likeable enough to overlook the weaknesses. At the time of writing this review Al Pacino is nominated for the ‘Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy’ Golden Globe but I won’t know for a few more hours if he’s won it. I’ll guess not, as though he’s very good I don’t quite think it’s an award-winning performance. However, as an ensemble I found the cast worked very well together.
Jennifer Garner is excellent, I think this may be the most I’ve liked her in a film since ‘Juno’ and she gets enough of a role to really make something of it. There’s no doubt she’s a mother, her performance has motherly written all over it but in the most genuine and endearing of ways, maybe not noticeably enough to get her awards attention but certainly enough for me to identify her character as the turning point for me actually deciding I would like the rest of the film, as he first scene made me relax and enjoy the story despite any misgivings I’d had up to that point.
A key piece of casting is Bobby Cannavale as Danny’s never-before-met son. Interestingly the part was originally meant to be played by Steve Carell (that would have been a different film I expect) and then Jeremy Renner (who I can also see looking enough like Pacino’s son) but it somehow turned into a great role for Cannavale who has been on the rise in recent years with some small but great roles in films such as ‘Blue Jasmine‘ and ‘Ant-Man’. Not only was I convinced enough that they might share some DNA but more importantly I really bought into him as a good father and warm family man. It’s clear that they have contrasting fathering styles and histories, nicely developing this aspect makes the story one that moves into the realms of family rather than fame and that’s often a stronger position to be writing a plot from. Director Dan Fogelman is better known for his writing work, being behind such films as ‘Tangled’ and ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’ which I really like very much and is another film that takes an interesting family and looks at how new influences and challenges make the family members adapt.
It’s fascinating to see how many of the original casting choices fell through, yet the resulting replacements really worked for me in a way that would’ve led me to think they were always the first choice for their roles. Some of the casting changes may even have been for the better, not just Carell to Cannavale, but also Julianne Moore being replaced by Annette Bening as a hotel manager for whom Danny takes a shine, which is another supporting role in this film that just works surprisingly well with the resulting cast. Christopher Plummer brings some more warmth and grounding to his role as Danny’s manager and friend, wholly convincing in their friendship though the role was originally meant to go to Michael Caine.
I enjoyed and approved of the way the film uses John Lennon’s music, quite a nice touch because it’s what you can imagine the character would listen to himself as he’s a lifelong fan, plus it seems to work well lyrically and tonally. The new music was written by Ryan Adams and in all fairness the chorus of ‘Sweet Baby Doll’ sticks in your head, partly due to a slight similarity to ‘Sweet Caroline’, convincingly as a song that one man could live off the royalties of for many years. Another small thing that stood out was the product placement of Hilton hotels that gets mentioned more times than any single characters name (well, possibly not but I can’t be bothered to watch the whole film through again and keep a tally to check).
Too much strong language, tone down bits like that and you’d have a more family friendly film, could easily be PG13 not R, though maybe it was a deliberate move to target the film at an appreciative older audience rather than getting a more mixed reception in a wider (possibly younger) one. I’d like to take a red pen to the screenplay and adjust a few bits, some of the cursing and drug use could be easily cut out to change this film a little while opening it up to a wider audience who might be won over by Danny as easily as others are.
Showing Steve Tilston (the real person the idea was loosely inspired by) talking about the letter he received in the end credits is a small final touch to relate it back to the opening statement, though to be honest I’m not sure that seeing him speak briefly adds much to the film. Sure enough it’s interesting to see him and good to know a little about the real life situation but it might’ve been better as a DVD extra. Really the opening said enough, ‘the following is kind of based on a true story a little bit’, from which Fogelman has built an essentially enjoyable, if unsurprising film about getting older, facing hard truths, and ultimately finding that the true value of one’s life is in family not fame, even though it struggles to get far enough away from the power of wealth to make that realisation crystal clear.
Danny Collins is nominated at the Golden Globes in the category of ‘Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy’ for Al Pacino. Available now on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VoD from the usual sources.