Why does Al Pacino need redemption?
After starring as a drug-addled thespian of the theater at the end of his artistic rope in January’s Philip Roth adaptation, The Humbling, Pacino returns to the land of spaced-out celebrity in need of an ego adjustment in Danny Collins–the sunnier, happier, late-in-life comedy version of the former that’s all contrived, hot air strutting.
The movie, about an aged yet still kicking’ rock star who, upon receiving a decades-long delayed letter from John Lennon to the younger pop crooner about following his artistic ambitions, and subsequently stepping out of the spotlight, is all groans. It’s the kind of movie that fills Pacino “the actor’s” ego twice-over with its gymnastic pandering, while attempting to deliver something that rings with emotional substance. Fortunately its feel-good nature never stalls out completely with its talented accompaniment of actors as their bubbly best, leaving charisma to spare throughout.
The movie’s first title card disclaimer prepares the audience for its uncommitted seriousness and fun times ahead, reading: “The following is based on a true story, a little bit.” So the part about a rockstar receiving a letter from Lennon having lived the remainder of his unfulfilled life in the lap of luxury is true; the rest is simply dressed up showboating, and about as much as you can handle.
The film opens in 1971, when a younger Collins is being interviewed by a Rolling Stone reporter (Nick Offerman) about his hit first album. Young Collins’ meek and unsure demeanor shows that his earliest self was founded on a center of artistic striving–so when we cut to forty years later, a more salt-than-peppered Collins, adorned in half-buttoned silk shirts and Keith Richards-esque scarves, sitting lost and loaded after another hit show at the Greek Theater, yet looking forlorn in existential pity, is supposed to come off as validating to his life’s current state.
It is indeed a sad thing when a rockstar can’t churn out the hits for which they became so famous for, or reinvent themselves into a person with anything new to say or prove.
This leads to a lackluster surprise party that leads to his manager and long time pal Frank Grubman (a very enjoyable Christopher Plummer) gifting Collins with Lennon’s 30 year old handwritten letter, who sizes up the party and his life one last time before leaving it all behind to live in a New Jersey hotel off the interstate. He gravitates towards soulful songwriting at a grand piano in his room, and also kind of just slums it with the hotel employees, while trying to reconnect with his never-met son, who’s daughter has ADHD and who himself is dying from cancer. The film cycles through these peripheral matters at hand with the same self-serving toying–Collins’ charming the hotel’s manager (Annette Bening), plunking away at notes and lyrics to a new somber yet honest ballad, to taking his granddaughter and family to a new specialized private school, and his son Tom (Bobby Cannavale) to a doctor’s appointment.
It’s not that Pacino as Collins is bad in an aggressively distasteful way. He actually slips into his oh-so-charming celebrity with the most comfortable ease, letting his charisma drive the engine of the movie ever-forward. But when the film round out to featuring Collins’ sulks and sofa-slumping for emotional turns, the result is too hammy. There’s no rock bottom here, or spiritual bottom even, as it just trades between Collins enjoying his cultural worship and tour bus and other moments where he’s a little more down on his time, resulting in superficial blandness that leaves us eye-rolling a few times too many.
These self-pitying moments are supposed to make us feel sorry for him in his newly set upon career when his now middle-aged audience wants to hear his hit songs from yesteryear, to which the performer finds disappointed acceptance. It is indeed a sad thing when a rockstar can’t churn out the hits for which they became so famous for, or reinvent themselves into a person with anything new to say or prove.
‘Danny Collins’ opens in Los Angeles today.