Al Pacino as a jaded, aging rocker re-juiced by a road trip to settle accounts with himself and his long-lost family? By all means roll your eyes — the star has one brow goofily raised himself — but don't give up on Danny Collins. In a (slightly) lower key than he's wont to play, Pacino puts a sweet spin on Danny that makes him more worth attending to than you might expect from the drifting geezer we meet, decked out in regulation gold chains and a bleary cocaine haze. He may be a trite spectacle, but if Annette Bening, with all her grown-up allure on tap, thinks he's worth a second look, shouldn't we, too?
Directed by Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid Love), the movie coyly announces that it was inspired by a true story "a little bit." That true story: Well into his career, the folk songwriter Steve Tilston received a letter written to him decades earlier by John Lennon, who urged him to follow his heart whether he hit the big time or remained a starving artist. Fogelman raids that late delivery for the film's conceit: the Beatle's letter finds Danny trapped in a velvet prison of his own success. Unable for 30 years to write new material, he tours the country, cranking out a hoary old tune (Hey Baby Doll) his boomer female fans still can't get enough of. As his loyal roadie (Christopher Plummer) warns, he's burned a deep hole in his savings on drugs and a "fiancee" less than half his age. The youth of today also adores him, which seems unlikely, but never mind.
Inspired by Lennon's advice, Danny takes off alone in his massive tour bus and parks himself in a middling New Jersey hotel in hopes of reaching out to the son he conceived on a one-night stand. As you might expect, Tom (Bobby Cannavale) is still marinating in anger toward his absent father, despite having scored a steady job, a loving wife (Jennifer Garner) and a motor-mouthed little girl with special needs.
As a family drama equipped with all the usual plot triggers — isn't it time for a 10–year moratorium on the cancer subplot? — Danny Collins is no more than adequate. Adversity scales down the big star into an ordinary guy struggling to step up for the common hurts and losses we all face. What makes a difference is that Danny's a spent man in search of a third act. So, perhaps, is Pacino, who plays this lost soul with a lightly suppressed joy, offering him to us as a man who fully accepts that he cuts a ridiculous figure, yet persists in making himself useful whether or not his help is appreciated.
In the end, Danny Collins works best as a romantic comedy, written by Fogelman with cheeky irreverence and delivered with offhanded charm by two seasoned actors who clearly relish their improbable chemistry. Along the winding road from her shimmering glamour in 1991's Bugsy to her lesbian helicopter parent with a robust yen for gay male porn in The Kids Are All Right (2011), Bening has worked up a signature wry, amused intelligence that expands to fit almost any role. Bening's Mary is a hotel manager who dresses in sensible cardies and a neat helmet of hair. She's a practical soul, a bit disappointed by life but game to go another round. She steadfastly turns down Danny's overtures, but there's a frisky playmate in Mary who's itching to be drawn out by a man she believes will surprise her.
Mary is not playing hard to get. She is hard to get because she has her own battle scars, and because she knows that Danny will be no good to her until he gets a life worth living. As for Danny, he sees right off the bat that with Mary he's playing way out of his league — and blunders ahead anyway. That's the whole cheerful fun of it.