Casting can make or break any movie; think Connery/Bond, O’Toole/Lawrence, the shark/Jaws. So it comes as a surprise when mainstream Hollywood gets it so wrong – as it has done in this otherwise sympathetic and honest if not overly probing look at an ageing rock star and his struggle to re-connect with the people that matter in his life.
As Danny Collins, Al Pacino, an actor inclined to devour any scene in which he gets close to the camera, is totally unsuitable. With inappropriate hair, ridiculous two-metre scarves and a car salesman’s shtick, he is nothing like the sort of singer-composer to whom John Lennon might have written a letter of encouragement. Now performing to grannies who only want to hear his old hits, Collins is stunned when he belatedly learns of the Lennon correspondence. In an attempt to rekindle the creative fire that consumed him as a young man, he turns away from the sex and drugs etc, takes a room in a hotel in darkest New Jersey to write new songs and, for good measure, seeks out the abandoned son (Bobby Cannavale) he had with a groupie.
Cannavale, not unexpectedly, is fantastic as the blue-collar battler with a heart of gold – but here we return to the question of casting. The screenplay’s intriguing, fresh approach to the theme of redemption achieves its goals in cruise mode thanks to Cannavale fitting so seamlessly into his part, along with Jennifer Garner as his weepy, expectant wife, Annette Benning reprising her American Beauty persona as the hotel manager, and Christopher Plummer posting his performance by messenger as Danny’s longtime friend and manager.
There are a few twists and turns in the plot to keep the outcome uncertain, and the Lennon tracks – all from his solo albums – are astutely sourced and beautifully placed to enhance the moment, but Pacino is not the right man to sell an otherwise irresistible product. Despite that caveat, it’s the sort of film you wish you could see more of, with a heart-swelling climax.