American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Danny Collins," about an old pop star discovering the true meaning of life, is an appealing comedy with an unabashed streak of melodrama, sharp dialogue, and a superb ensemble cast, anchored by a lead performance by Al Pacino in lovable scamp mode. Its excitement comes from watching its leathery, raspy-voiced star play the title character, a Neil Diamond-ish soft rock icon reconnecting with the family he's neglected for decades while wooing a Hilton manager named Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening) and trying to write something new and good.
If this sounds like a tidy arc, well, it is—but only for Danny, and only at first. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Dan Fogelman ("Crazy Stupid Love," "Tangled"), the movie is a redemption tale in which a man who has long thought of nothing but money and pleasure experiences a series of emotional shocks, contemplates his life and image, and struggles to become a better man and a deeper artist. From the second we meet Danny, we think of him as a charismatic buffoon, a guy who'd probably be insufferable if he weren't aware of how little new material he's written during the last three decades of his career, how few relationships he's forged of any depth, and how much money he's blown through (a lot of it went straight up his nose).
When Danny's manager and best friend Frank (the great Christopher Plummer) gives Danny a birthday gift—a 1971 fan letter from John Lennon inviting him to come to New York and look him and Yoko up—we expect the shakeup to put him on a straight line towards sainthood. After a few sleepless nights, Danny cancels his big-money tour, breaks off his engagement to a younger woman who's been cheating on him, checks into a suburban New Jersey Hilton, and sets about wooing Mary, working on a vaguely Leonard Cohen-esque confessional song, and reconnecting with his long-estranged son, Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), a real working-class hero (as per Lennon's hit) who lives in the suburbs with his pregnant wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and their special-needs daughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg). The dialogue and story details are often a bit much (did Danny's granddaughter have to be named Hope, and did the film have to use Lennon's music as emotional boldface?) and after a while, the film's meandering rhythm can seem too pleased with itself.
But this is still a hugely effective film, mainly because the path between Danny and redemption proves steeper than he dreamed, and it's filled with obstructions, some placed by acts of God, others by Danny's personality and world view (and addictions—not just to drugs and alcohol but to luxury).