Al Pacino playing an overripe rock star ruing his misspent youth (and middle age) might seem like an opportunity for enthusiastic hoo-hah-ing and a whole lotta ACTING in capital letters. But the saving grace of "Danny Collins" is that Pacino is playing a performer, one whose overly large self is perfectly plausible. Danny is a rock and roller whose biggest records are well behind him, but whose devoted fans still turn out in droves to hear his hits. So Danny, 40 years past his prime and recycling like crazy, is still rolling in money, women and cocaine. Life may be shallow, but it's sweet.
And then a letter turns up, 40 years after it was sent, telling a young, promising Danny to be true to his art, to never compromise his talent. The writer: John Lennon. (The incident is based on a true story, and a real Lennon letter to English folk singer Steve Tilston.) Danny looks at his life, at its trail of broken promises and unmet potential, and decides to make amends.
Yes, it's a surefire recipe for schmaltz. But Pacino makes Danny into a man who knows exactly what he is, and how and why he appeals to people -- after all, Danny is Mr. Show Biz, who's been cultivating his persona and making calculations about people his whole life. So when he seeks out the son he abandoned (Bobby Cannavale), Danny expects to be rebuffed and to eventually get his way; when Danny takes a shine to the beautiful manager (Annette Bening) at the hotel where he sets himself up, he knows he'll charm his way past her misgivings about his wastrel ways.
Dan Fogelman's script hits all the predictable plot points en route to Danny's Waterloo with his own ego and uncertainties, but there's also an honesty about how the hero deals with his son, his daughter-in-law (Jennifer Garner) and their daughter, who needs the kind of special help only Danny can afford. The relationship between Danny and his longtime manager (a first-rate Christopher Plummer) feels right, their history being all about ego-wrangling and self-indulgence. And the film avoids any easy roads to redemption -- Danny's attempt to reinvent himself is just as hard as it should be. For all his unchained charm, Pacino also provides an appropriate amount of pain.