Movie review: Al Pacino embraces the flaws of an ageing star in Danny Collins

Review Drama-comedy

DANNY COLLINS (NC16)

107 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2

The story: Danny Collins (Al Pacino) is an ageing rock star who for many years has been making millions solely on the strength of his old songs. All drugged out and a spent force creatively, he gets a wake-up call on his birthday when his friend and manager Frank (Christopher Plummer) gives him a lost letter John Lennon had written him decades ago. Not only does he try to write new songs, but he also sets out to reconcile with his long-lost son Tom (Bobby Cannavale). Inspired by a real story.

This is no Walk The Line, the 2005 Oscar-winning biopic of country music legend Johnny Cash.

Steve Tilston, the singer-songwriter whose story inspired this drama, is nowhere near as famous as Cash.

Even if he were, writer-director Dan Fogelman has turned his experience of receiving a letter of encouragement from Lennon into an existential dramedy about an ageing man trying to reclaim meaning in his life.

Danny Collins is closer to About Schmidt, that 2002 Oscar-nominated Jack Nicholson vehicle, albeit with a slightly younger man who has better hair and a lot more money.

As a film in the sub-genre of middle-age-crisis drama, it is more accessible (read: mainstream) than Alexander Payne's work and, certainly, it breaks no new ground.

Yet, like a hit rock song with an all-too-familiar chord progression and a formulaic anthemic sing-along chorus, Danny Collins hits all the right notes with gusto and warmth.

Writer-turned-rookie director Fogelman - as he had shown with his script for the 2011 romcom Crazy, Stupid, Love - knows how to handle cliches with panache, injecting just enough of a twist and sincerity to lift a work above mediocrity.

The cast know their roles in the script development, walk to their marks and nail their performances with little or no effort.

Plummer chews up scenery with his impression of a seen-it-all manager who has had enough of the nubile young nudity flaunted at Danny's parties.

Cannavale tempers his anger at his absent father with sufficient tenderness towards his own family that his character Tom is not mere caricature.

Annette Bening, as hotel manager Mary Sinclair and could-be appropriate-age love interest of Danny's, is an especially charming foil for Pacino. More Diane Keaton than Diane Keaton, she is all dimpled smiles and wary repartee until Danny breaks down her defences.

Best of all has to be Pacino's seemingly meta-performance of an ageing acclaimed star who questions what exactly it is that he is acclaimed for, since he feels like he is coasting on the remnants of past glory. His is a portrayal so effortless and worn-in, you would think he is pranking himself.

Out of his eight Oscar nominations, the only golden man statuette he has won, for 1992's Scent Of A Woman, was for a role that already smacked of parody of his best work in the 1970s.

His work in Danny Collins is beyond parody, though.

Embracing all of the fictitious singer's flaws and failings with much generosity and as if they were his own, Pacino seems to reach the same conclusion as his character: Art is nothing to be precious about and it is certainly not subservient to entertainment, which brings a great deal of joy to many and puts food on the table.

Danny, in the end, lays aside his own latter-day ambition to be a real artist, choosing to remain a "jester" on stage with a microphone because his best-selling concert tours will pay the medical bills of his ailing son.

Singing his cheesy smash hit Hey Baby Doll for the nth time is not art. But it gives life.