Al Pacino is the life of the party as Danny Collins, an aging rock icon still making bank from oldies concerts. But Danny is sick of it. His manager (a priceless Christopher Plummer) unwittingly kills the golden goose when he gives Danny a gift. It’s an undelivered 1971 letter to Danny from John Lennon, in which the former Beatle invited Danny to discuss career choices. The film’s catalyst is a real letter Lennon sent to British musician Steve Tilston, who worried about the corrupting influence of fame. The letter is as far as screenwriter and debuting director Dan Fogelman sticks to the facts. A playful screen credit reads, “Kind of based on a true story a little bit.”
My guess is you’ll be having too much fun to care. Fogelman, whose scripts range from Crazy Stupid Love to Last Vegas, is hardly allergic to formula or sentimentality. The Lennon letter changes Danny. He vows to quit touring and write the kind of music he thinks Lennon would have encouraged. So Danny flies to New Jersey, checks into a Hilton to work and seeks out the home of Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), the son Danny had after a one-night stand with a groupie, now deceased. Tom, a suburban family man, wants nothing to do with his neglectful Big Daddy. But when Danny visits Tom’s home and meets his wife, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), and their ADHD-afflicted daughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg), can reconciliation be far away?
Danny Collins has no intention of breaking new ground. The flirtation Danny carries on with hotel manager Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening) is pure boilerplate. But here’s the thing. Pacino and a top cast make it mean something. Cannavale digs deep into the role of the resentful son, revealing scar tissue not easily healed. I wish Fogelman didn’t introduce the crutch of terminal illness. Watching fine actors add complexity to their roles is joy enough. And Pacino is irresistible. Whether strutting onstage or wrestling with his drug-fueled demons, he doesn’t skimp on Danny’s human limits. With nine Lennon tunes on the soundtrack and a new song for Danny to express his creative reinvention, this hilarious and heartfelt movie is an exuberant gift.