In 2005, noted British folk singer Steve Tilston was contacted by an American collector of obscure music memorabilia who purportedly had come upon something that might be of great interest to him. As it turned out, the mystery object was in fact a letter addressed to Tilston, written by none other than legendary Beatles frontman John Lennon. Originally penned in 1971, the letter was written in response to an interview Tilston gave to ZigZag magazine in which he stated that he felt reaping fame and fortune would have a negative effect on his career. Abhorrent of cynicism, Lennon took the time out to write Tilston to say that if he simply stayed true to himself and his music, no amount of success could ever corrupt him. The icon even wrote his phone number on the note in the hopes that the young up-and-comer might give him a ring to discuss this quandary. Unfortunately, instead of mailing the letter directly to Tilston, Lennon instead sent it to the offices of ZigZag, who promptly filed it away with the intention of selling it to a wealthy collector (which they obviously did). Thus, Tilston never received what could have been a life-changing message from one of his musical heroes.
The poignant and powerful nature of this anecdote was not lost on writer/director Dan Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid Love), who loosely adapted and expanded the story into his latest charming family dramedy, Danny Collins. The titular Mr. Collins (Al Pacino) is, in this version, a hard-partying rockstar more in the vein of David Lee Roth than Donavan. Just as it really happened, Collins receives the heartfelt letter from John Lennon and decides to turn his life around. He ditches his unfaithful trophy wife Sophie (Katarina Cas), and ships off for Nowhere, New Jersey, where he holes himself up in a dingy Marriot with little more than a grand piano and a notepad in an attempt to get back to his musical roots. During his suburban sojourn, Danny becomes smitten with the fiercely intelligent hotel manager Mary (Anette Bening), who inspires his increasingly abstract tunes with her no-holds-barred frankness.
Soon, it becomes obvious that the real reason for Danny’s trip is more than just musical— he’s come to visit his estranged son Tom (Bobby Cannavale), who has long harbored a grudge against his absent dad for abandoning him and his mother to chase money and stardom. Danny arrives at Tom’s blue collar home to find his daughter-in-law Samantha (Jennifer Garner) working overtime to take care of her and Tom’s hyperactive young daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg), who struggles with ADHD. Though Samantha warns Danny that Tom wants nothing to do with him, he manages to win her over through the affection he shows Hope. Predictably, when Tom finally does show up, he aggressively throws his dad out, telling him in no uncertain terms that he never wants to seen him again. But when Danny Collins wants something, he’ll stop at nothing at to get it. As he throws his all into attempting to ingratiate himself with Tom and his family, Danny comes to terms with his own flaws and finds truth on a deeper level. As the layers of artifice are stripped away, the once-pompous celebrity must face a multitude of grave, complex problems both mental and physical, while clinging to the inner spirit John Lennon so fiercely bid him to protect.
Indeed, Danny Collins is a lovely little film—clever yet sincere, biting yet touching, dark and light at once. Al Pacino gives a masterfully understated performance—his best in years— as the harried has been, imbuing Danny with a deeply believable vulnerability that a lesser actor might have overlooked. In addition, Bobby Cannavale strikes all the right notes with his emotional turn as the stoic, troubled Tom, and Jennifer Garner manages to carve, a real, three-dimensional character out of what might have been a little thin on the page. Additional props are due to seven-year-old Giselle Eisenberg, who delivers what is beyond a shadow of a doubt the single best child performance in the past decade. A star is born, folks!
Overall, Danny Collins delivers a positive, uplifting message without ever being hokey or on-the-nose, and it does so via a sharp, tight narrative. Whether you’re a Lennon fan, a Pacino fan, or just someone who places importance on the concept of family, be sure to check out this delightful film, in theaters now!