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16 Apr 2015

The Return of Al Pacino: 'Danny Collins' Offers the Acting Great His Best Role in More Than a Decade

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Al Pacino in Danny Collins. Al Pacino in Danny Collins.

It’s been 12 years since the great Al Pacino has been involved in a project worthy of his talents. (His Roy Cohn in 2003’s Angels in America was his last great role.) He’s become a bit of a caricature in the last decade, appearing in some of its worst movies (Ocean’s Thirteen, Gigli, 88 Minutes, Jack and Jill and Righteous Kill to name a few) and hamming it up to the point where he’s nearly unwatchable.

Danny Collins isn’t a return to absolute greatness for Pacino, but it does serve as a relevant and crowd-pleasing vehicle for the former Michael Corleone. Pacino steps up as the title character, a Neil Diamond-like rock singer who has spent the past 40 years touring and performing “the hits.” No longer a productive songwriter, he’s come to rely on the comfort of crowds reacting happily to his most popular hit, “Baby Doll.” He’s also heavy into drugs and alcohol, and is engaged to a girl half his age.

On the eve of his birthday, his manager (a delightfully acerbic Christopher Plummer) gives him a special present: a framed letter to Collins that John Lennon wrote many years ago that was never delivered. Lennon had once read an article about Collins, was moved, and sent correspondence from him and Yoko, with his phone number. He was offering some fatherly advice to the confused young Danny—but a scummy collector got his hands on the letter, and Danny never got it.

The gift throws Danny into a tailspin, as he wonders what life would’ve been like if he could’ve called Lennon and been pals. Trivia note: This element of the story is based on the true story of folk singer Steve Tilston, who received a similar letter from John Lennon 34 years after it was written, phone number and all.

Danny packs his bag and heads to Jersey, where he takes up residence in a Hilton and commits to finding his estranged son (Bobby Cannavale). He puts a piano in his room and tries to rediscover the artistic hunger that drove him 40 years prior.

Perhaps Pacino saw the “redemptive” angle in the script as a nice parallel to his own career. His last great cinematic venture, besides the HBO effort, was 2002’s Insomnia, which capped a long stretch of good-to-great vehicles for the American icon. Pacino dives into the role of Danny with much aplomb, and employs the sort of nuance that has been missing from his work for too many years. He’s fully engaged in the movie, which helps him to rise above the schmaltz and make it something entertaining, moving and funny. He gets help from a stellar supporting cast, including Cannavale, Plummer, Annette Bening as the hotel manager on whom Danny has a crush, and Jennifer Garner as the daughter-in-law he’s just meeting.

Cannavale deserves special notice. His character is given a disease-of-the-week plotline along with the abandoned-son routine—in other words, enough clichés to torpedo any performer. Somehow, Cannavale turns the whole thing into his best screen work yet. It’s a pleasure to see him exchanging lines with Pacino.

The biggest stretch in this film is buying Pacino as a singer. Pacino is a shitty, shitty singer, and he seems to know it, so the couple of scenes during which he’s onstage are a bit comical. Yet they have a lot of appeal.

Danny Collins might not mark the return of the great Pacino, but it does stand as proof that he has plenty of gas left in the tank. I think he should do a little tour as Danny Collins. It would be fantastically awful to the point of being awesome.

Danny Collins is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

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