Artistic Integrity vs. Fame and Wealth. This is one of the fundamental issues in DANNY COLLINS, which finds Al Pacino as an aging rock star has-been who turns his life around when he is given a letter that John Lennon wrote to him forty years ago. Based on a true incident, the film follows the near-laughable bundle of clichés that is Danny Collins making changes in his life and connecting with his adult son with whom he has had no prior contact.
DANNY COLLINS is not your typical rock-star-repents-after-living-a-life-of-excess story. It actually is, at it’s most very basic level, but it is actually so much more. Collins decamps for New Jersey, blessing a small suburban Hilton with his presence, staking out a corner in the bar, bringing in a Steinway piano, and charming the staff. He is approaching his career fresh for the first time since he broke, and he doesn’t even know where to begin. However, he approaches it with such gusto you can’t help but be on his side.
The Integrity vs Wealth question is especially interesting with Pacino in the spotlight. Growing up in the ’80’s, it was already a predetermined fact that the three greatest actors ever were Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman. For me, it is hard to think about any one of them with out the other two. While Robert De Niro had the early ‘street cred’ lead with a string of generational defining anti-heros (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Deer Hunter), Dustin Hoffman seemed to be the people’s choice with films like The Graduate, Tootsie, and Rain Man. Al Pacino tended to the darker and even more anti-hero roles (The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Cruising, Scarface). However, if you compare the sheer output in their filmographies, the difference between the three actors becomes even more noticeable. Hoffman sometimes chooses spectacularly terrible material (Hook, Ishtar), and in recent years, almost seems to have given up on acting, focusing instead on cartoon voice-over work (the Kung Fu Panda series, The Tale of Despereaux) and directing (Quartet). De Niro works all the time, but has basically become a joke (it started in 1999 with Analyize This, 2000 Meet the Parents, and continued through various sequels of those, as well as an endless stream of blah films). Pacino, on the other hand, has always been choosey about projects. Prior to last year, he had made only a handful of films in the last ten years, and mostly in small or supporting roles.
2015 is a renaissance for Al Pacino. With three films starring him as a character at basically the same place in life, stuck in the past, desperate to move forward, Pacino seems to be the last one standing of the holy acting trinity of my childhood. The three films cannot help but being compared, with their thematic link and lead character. THE HUMBLING stars Pacino as an actor who cannot learn his learns and who, after a successful career on broadway, has no life outside the stage. MANGLEHORN stars Pacino as a locksmith, who has locked his feelings away with his past regrets, desperately hoping he still has a perfect moment ahead of him. DANNY COLLINS stars Pacino as a rock star who suddenly realizes his entire life has been a bloated joke and wants to find something real. His performance in all three, but especially DANNY COLLINS, proves Pacino is still at the top of his game, and able to tap into a depth of emotion that Hoffman seems to be avoiding and De Niro seems to have forgotten.
The rock star story plays second fiddle (or rhythm guitar) to the tremendous family relationship plot. Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire, Nurse Jackie) plays Collin’s estranged son, with an intensity and pain that you rarely see in these stories. He even calls out his father on whatever ‘story book ending’ he was hoping for, which sends the film in a new surprising direction.
Jennifer Garner is great as she always is, playing Collins’ very pregnant daughter-in-law. Truly she is one of the most underrated actresses working right now, I blame DAREDEVIL. The film catches you by surprise, you root for Collins the whole time, still frustrated with him and knowing he has no one to blame but himself. His rapport with Hotel Manager Annette Bening is charming and very real. His friendship with his manager (Christopher Plummer) is equally honest, full of humor and tough love. These relationships allow Collins to tap into a creativity and inspiration he hasn’t felt since the mid-seventies. As he desperately tries to reinvent himself, or at least cast off the weight of the last thirty years, the shadow of audience expectations and judgement haunts him. If all those years ago he chose “Fame and Wealth” or “Artistic Integrity,” it seems time finally to see, like John Lennon told him, he could have both.
This is just a good movie. It’s not going to change the world, but it may make you think very long and hard about what you value in your life. And when it comes down to Artistic Integrity vs. Fame and Wealth, I think it’s clear that Pacino has come to a very satisfying conclusion on the issue.