Some years ago, I went to see Tom Jones perform. He sang all the hits, but I was unnerved by his new, walnut-brown goatee. It looked freshly trimmed and fake, like he'd ripped it off Evil Spock backstage. Superstars aren't allowed to change. Even the fans who love them insist they be dipped in wax: no new songs, no new attitude, and certainly no new look.
Such is the "kind of based on a true story a little bit" premise of Danny Collins, a winning charmer with Al Pacino as a megawatt singer who sells out stadiums packed with silver bouffants and has calcified into a caricature of a human being. Pacino plays him as delusionally vain. He wears his shirts unbuttoned to just above his girdle and is so coated in bronzer that he looks like a maple donut. Only his droll manager Frank (Christopher Plummer), who's even older, gets away with calling him "kid," and also, "Sylvia Plath." When Danny gets wasted on scotch and groans about his life, Frank corrects him: "Pregnant women in Africa feeding half their village with their titties have problems."
Writer-director Dan Fogelman (making his filmmaking debut after penning Crazy, Stupid, Love.) is sympathetic, to a point. All creative types understand the fear that their best work is behind them, and worse, that there are leftover ideas they can't figure out how to say, assuming audiences were even willing to hear them. Still, Danny's agonies are at least half-funny. Sure, he's gotten older — but all the bikini babes at his birthday party have stayed the same age. (And Fogelman can't resist panning down a row of gray-haired men gazing wistfully at the pool.)
Danny wants to go back to the folk singer he was in 1971, who we meet in a brief flashback. A reporter (Nick Offerman) warns that he's so talented, "like fucking Lennon, man," that he's destined for fame, fortune, and females. Young Danny (Eric Michael Roy, a dead ringer for Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon) looks so scared, you half expect him to bolt from the office and go rob a bank. In a way, he did: After sales of a personal album flopped, he gave up and swaggered through other people's songs, earning enough easy loot for a mansion complete with lithe blonde fiancée (his fourth) and its own elevator. He's accepted selling out — who wouldn't? — until Frank presents him with a lost letter Lennon wrote four and a half decades ago urging Danny to "stay true to yourself." Talk about a from-the-grave guilt trip.
Danny Collins is a redemption movie in the skeptical key of Jerry Maguire. Our decadent hero decides to fix himself in the first act. The rest of the film is him realizing how hard it'll be to keep living right — and that maybe he doesn't have the moral clout to manage it. Here, Danny jets off to New Jersey in his private plane, checks into a modest hotel hosting a dental convention, and stuffs a grand piano into a room so cramped he has no choice but to sit down at the stool and compose.
In a way, Danny Collins is allowing Al Pacino to do the same thing. The great Seventies talent has "hoo-ah!"–ed through recent decades, cranking out variations on his greatest hits. This movie is a narrow character piece that shows Pacino wrestling to reveal layers in a man who's worried he might actually be hollow. He and Fogelman string together dozens of small, perfect moments: the way Danny deflects gawkers with aggressive extroversion, a bit where he lobs lemon rinds into a tequila glass with drunken dead-aim, his confident shrug when the hotel manager, Mary (Annette Bening), tells him his silken scarf looks ridiculous.
He and Mary are fated to flirt — we know it the second Bening pops up behind a desk, blinking in confusion. But Fogelman bases their connection not on Danny's need to heal himself with a normal mortal, but on Danny and Mary's repartee. They click, and their dialogue feels sprightly, not scripted. (As a bonus, when Danny compliments himself that eighteen-years-younger Mary is age-appropriate, Frank clucks, "No, not really.")
Danny has a harder time wooing his estranged son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), the result of a one-night stand with a groupie. Tom, a construction worker, has his own family with wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and wild moppet Hope (Giselle Eisenberg, a hyperactive powerhouse), and no tolerance for this fancy-pants stranger who unmans him by offering to pay for his granddaughter's expensive dream school. Cannavale is perfect in the part: He's got the brawn of a working-class hero, but his eyebrows are always tilted like he's about to cry. He comes close to out-acting Pacino, who proves willing to share the mic.
Everyone gets over-invested in Danny's could-be comeback, but they and the film know how to cut the sweetness with just enough sour. When Mary beams that despite barely knowing Danny, and even if it sounds weird to say, she's proud of him, he cracks, "That is fucking weird." Yet, even if she thinks she knows what's best for him, Fogelman doesn't discount the power of Danny's staying exactly the same. After all, singing the hits makes millions happy — and maybe that does matter more than the soul of one man.