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Movie review: Pacino can’t save over-the-hill rock star flick “Danny Collins”

Imagine there’s no movies like “Danny Collins.” It’s easy if you try. No Al Pacino to annoy us. Above us only sky.

Pacino plays Collins, an over-the-hill rock star who’s stuck singing his big hit “Hey Baby Doll” to grandmas who look younger than he does. Picture a charm-free Neil Diamond, who never buttons his shirt past halfway (and whose “Hey Baby Doll” sounds suspiciously like “Sweet Caroline”), then add a triple-layer of schmaltz and cocaine, and you’re almost there.

But Collins is in for a surprise: his loyal manager (Christopher Plummer) finds a letter that John Lennon wrote to Collins in 1971, telling Collins not to sell out and leaving his home number if Collins wanted to pop over and discuss not selling out over dinner at Lennon’s mansion. Collins never got the letter -- and he did sell out, big-time – so this all comes as quite the shock. Faster than you can say “late-life crisis,” he’s dumped his hot young girlfriend, canceled his tour and flown to New Jersey to reconnect with his long-lost son and start writing new songs.

It’s not easy being an overbearing superstar. Pacino flies in a private jet, drives a fancy sports car (or a huge tour bus), and watches everybody fall all over themselves at the mere sight of him. The parking lot attendant at the local Hilton, the girl at the front desk, everybody but the tightly wound hotel manager (Annette Bening), who deflects his insistent pleas for a dinner date but tolerates his drunken self-pity and banal lyrics.

The son (Bobby Cannavale) isn’t too interested either. He’s a regular Joe named Tom, works construction, has a wife (Jennifer Garner) and a hyperactive kid and another one on the way. They try to resist the Danny Collins charm offensive, even when Collins pays for a special school for the kid and a busload of presents. “Everything he says (annoys) me,” Tom says about Collins.

I know the feeling. There’s a lot to like about “Danny Collins,” starting with the casting. Plummer and Garner are a welcome sight in any movie, and Cannavale and Bening are incapable of a bad performance. You can’t say the same about Pacino -- his later years are full of lazy, hammy misfires -- but he’s awake and engaged for this one. He’s just not believable. It’s hard to imagine that Danny Collins was ever a rock star, not with stage moves that look like a “Saturday Night Live” skit and a voice that makes Leonard Cohen sound like Paul McCartney, and impossible to care whether he finds fulfillment with his new songs or goes back to croaking out “Hey Baby Doll” to the Golden Girls.

Writer-director Dan Fogelman seems to sense that the problems of a rich, pampered 74-year-old don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, and lards up his story with sentiment and an extra disease for a main character. It allows for a touching final scene that lets a dialed-back Pacino show he’s still got the acting chops that made him one of the greatest American actors. More of that, a lot less of the superficial annoyances, and “Danny Collins” might have had a chance.

The movie is inspired by a real letter that Lennon wrote to British musician Steve Tilston, who talks about receiving it after 34 years as the credits roll. Tilston enjoyed a moderately successful career as a folk musician, and viewers of “Danny Collins” can enjoy a soundtrack full of Lennon’s songs. Turn that up, I kept thinking as “Cold Turkey” or “#9 Dream” began to play. And tell that old guy to be quiet.

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