Al Pacino cracks a smile in front of his tour bus in Danny Collins.

In this current phase of Al Pacino’s career, when he’s playing broken-down old men with no one to blame but themselves for being broken down, Danny Collins is the best vehicle he’s encountered. Granted, this comedy isn’t much more than agreeable, but after the self- (and Adam Sandler-) inflicted humiliation that was Jack & Jill, Pacino fans will jump at it.

He plays the title character, a faded rock star who still sells out arenas to his loyal, aging fans but is a coked-up wreck offstage. He gets a much-needed wake-up call at his birthday party, when his longtime manager (Christopher Plummer) gives him a handwritten letter written to Danny by John Lennon in 1971 that never reached him. The ex-Beatle tells him to stay true to his music and leaves his personal phone number with an invitation to call — as the movie’s closing credits note, this actually happened to a Welsh songwriter named Steve Tilston. Haunted by how his life might have changed if he’d received the letter and called, Danny ditches drugs and his faithless fiancée (Katarina Cas), travels across the country, and holes up in an anonymous Hilton hotel in suburban New Jersey so that he can finally meet his grown son Tom (Bobby Cannavale) for the first time.

The movie’s biggest flaw is its most bleedingly obvious one: Pacino can’t sing. I suppose you could write off the few croaking snippets we hear as the character’s vocal failings; Danny admits to sounding like crap after decades of hard partying. Still, the songs (penned by Ryan Adams) give us no sense of what Danny was like in his prime, nor does the new one that Danny starts to write reflect the new maturity that he’s trying to embrace. In fact, most of the soundtrack is taken up with Lennon’s songs instead. Crazy Heart made much better use of music to let us glean how its hero’s life and career went before the story we see. Also, everyone around Danny’s young granddaughter (Giselle Eisenberg) keeps saying that her ADHD is a serious problem, but the movie keeps treating her condition like an adorable quirk. Bad form.

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Despite this and some cheesy plot twists, Dan Fogelman (the screenwriter of Bolt and Crazy, Stupid, Love., making his directing debut) provides enough laughs to keep our interest from flagging. There’s the finely honed banter between Pacino and Annette Bening as the hotel manager whom he keeps hitting on, as well as a tasty exchange when Danny’s manager notes how she’s older than most of the women he tries to date. There’s Cannavale, normally a high-key performer, smartly dialing himself down in Pacino’s presence. There’s Jennifer Garner as Tom’s pregnant wife, conveying all the calm anger that she feels on her husband’s behalf. And there’s a beautiful speech near the end from Plummer about why his character feels so extraordinarily loyal towards his exasperating client. What could have been a cheap piece of hackwork becomes a pleasing little trifle, thanks to its actors.


[box_info]Danny Collins
Starring Al Pacino and Annette Bening. Written and directed by Dan Fogelman. Rated R.[/box_info]