Review: 'Danny Collins' comeback story is Al Pacino's, too

A solid cast, led by the great Al Pacino, delivers in Danny Collins.
Al Pacino turns in a terrific, restrained performance as a fading '70s rock star in Danny Collins. Bleeker Street
Al Pacino turns in a terrific, restrained performance as a fading '70s rock star in Danny Collins.Bleeker Street
Published March 31 2015
Updated March 31 2015

What a pleasure to see Al Pacino cut loose in Danny Collins, having fun acting again. Not that he hasn't enjoyed performing, but sitting through much of his past decade of movie work has been a chore.

Pacino is back in boisterous style, in a role that could be pitched as Scent of a Woman with sight. Playing the last hoo-rah of a fading '70s rock star, Pacino burns the screen as he hasn't in years, not like a flamethrower but the softer heat of a lighter lifted at a concert. He even sings a little, and it's sweeter to the ear than you'd think.

Not the first time we hear Danny, who doesn't seem interested in singing his biggest hit at another nostalgia rock show. Danny made a bundle off that song, living high and flighty in L.A. with arm candy half his age. A birthday gift from his manager (Christopher Plummer) shakes Danny to life: an undelivered, handwritten letter to him from John Lennon, advising him to remain true to himself and his music. Danny realizes he hasn't, but he will.

(The story is inspired by musician Steve Tilston, who did receive an encouraging letter from Lennon, but that's where similarities to the movie end.)

Abandoning his mansion, Danny moves into a Hyatt in New Jersey, with a baby grand for writing songs. But writer-director Dan Fogelman has more than one comeback in mind for Danny, and too many characters requiring triumphs of their own. His screenplay is overstuffed with a difficult pregnancy, cancer, ADHD, a recovering alcoholic, a budding romance, post-divorce blues — and that's just the supporting cast. Danny has enough problems, thank you very much.

Thing is, each of these narrative speed bumps is appreciated because the performances are so good. Annette Bening dials down her dazzle to a blush, playing the hotel manager Danny incessantly flirts with. Plummer makes the most of his nice change of pace. Jennifer Garner snaps off a few choice moments, while Bobby Cannavale as the son Danny never met may be Pacino's acting soulmate; their scenes together are fascinating to watch.

Danny Collins isn't the most artistic or surprising movie, and Fogelman's appropriation of Lennon's music to explain what's obvious gets stale. But it does contain a wonderful performance by Pacino, when it was debatable if we'd ever say that again. Whatever gets you through the night.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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