Wealthy famous guys are routinely characterized in films as inept or wildly selfish or wholly indifferent when it comes to fathering. We all know what happens when these guys turn old and come looking for redemption from their now-grown kids. Hostility, fuck do you want?, take a hike, etc. Dan Fogelman‘s Danny Collins (Bleecker Street, 3.20) is one of those films, and it’s tough to ignore the fact that the basic situation is a huge, elephant-sized cliche. But not an insurmountable one. Wes Anderson‘s The Royal Tenenbaums started with the same situation but finessed it into something clever and affecting. I’m sorry to say that Fogelman doesn’t quite manage the same.
It was doubly hard for me given my completely unreasonable prejudice against the name “Danny” or any character or movie using it. Sorry but that’s two strikes going in.
Al Pacino‘s titular character is a dissolute, Neil Diamond-like soft rocker who’s been coasting for at least a couple of decades as an oldies act. This in itself is tough to swallow given that Pacino has a frail, hoarse-sounding singing voice that no one would pay to hear. Plus Collins has the kind of cocaine and alcohol problem that almost invariably ends in death or career ruin by the time an artist hits his 50s and certainly by his 60s, but here’s crazy, high-spirited Danny still tootin’ and sippin’ into his 70s. The movie in fact obliges his addictions by depicting them as regrettable foibles or indulgences, almost along the lines of how Humphrey Bogart regards Walter Brennan‘s alcoholism in To Have and Have Not.
The tale begins when porkpie-hat-wearing manager (Christopher Plummer) shows Collins a heretofore hidden fan letter that John Lennon wrote in the early ’70s. The hand-written note expressed admiration and support for Collins’ songwriting abilities, which might have developed in a Dylanesque fashion but instead took an opposite tack. For the first time in 40-plus years Collins is suddenly struck by the startling notion that he’s probably squandered his songwriting talent (fully deserving of a Keanu Reeves-style “whoa!”) and taken the easy commercial route instead.
What kind of redemption saga can this be when Collins’ moment of doubt and pain doesn’t even come from within Collins himself? This guy’s sense of identity and self-worth is so louche and fragile and teetering that all it takes is a yellowed note from a dead rock star to prompt a bout of self-reflection? A guy this lazy and unaware is not my idea of interesting company.
The general “what have I done with my life?” thing leads Collins to seek out a now-grown son (Bobby Cannavale) he never knew or sought out in his salad days. Cannavale is a New Jersey construction worker living in a heavily-mortgaged home with a nice wife (Jennifer Garner) and a young daughter afflicted with ADHD. Pacino comes along and says “can we hang a bit?” and “I could help out” and so on. Naturally, as per cliche in films of this type, Cannavale shows him the door. But Pacino/Collins persists and they eventually have a heart-to-heart, and then Cannavale confides that he’s coping with a blood disease that might turn out to be fatal.
In real life Cannavale’s character would say to himself, “Well, this guy’s a selfish asshole from way back so there’s no way I’ll ever accept him as a father figure, but he’s full of guilt and has a pleasant-enough personality and he’s stinking rich so I’m definitely taking advantage of this situation to try to cover some of my expenses. I’m having trouble making the mortgage and I have a daughter who has special educational needs plus I might be fucking dead a year from now. I’m at least gonna see a little coin out of this.”
But Danny Collins is a movie, and so Cannavale decides that venting his anger over Pacino’s dereliction of paternal duty trumps all, and that expressing all of this wonderful, pent-up rage is far more important than taking care of his daughter. Yes, Cannavale eventually comes around and realizes it would be sheer idiocy to look a gift horse in the mouth, but boy, does he take a long time to wake up to this! It takes at least least 15 or 20 agonizing minutes for Cannavale to work through his angry, none-too-bright bullshit. I was sitting there going “you think Pacino’s an asshole, or used to be one? Well, the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree, my friend.”
On top of which Cannavale is almost twice Pacino’s size so how did they get to be father and son in the first place?
All this aside, Danny Collins ends rather well. The final scene occurs in a doctor’s office and contains a hilarious sign-off line from Pacino, and a great final line (spoken by an off-screen character) and a final cut-to-black edit that’s just right.