Tag Archives: B

DANNY COLLINS

In “Danny Collins,” Al Pacino, shambling along with much the same tired gait as the character he played in “The Humbling” but far more animated when thrust into performance mode (whether on stage on not), plays an over-the-hill rocker regaling audiences of sixty-something nostalgia buffs at arena events. It’s an audience of like age and inclination that will find Dan Fogelman’s utterly predictable but reasonably engaging movie, very loosely based on a real incident, most enjoyable.

The incident involved a letter written by John Lennon to British folk singer-songwriter Steve Tilston in 1971 after reading that Tilston was worried that fame and wealth might prove corrupting. The letter was never delivered, and Tilston became aware of it only in 2005. Fogelman takes that story and fictionalizes it in spades, presenting Collins as the geriatric rocker par excellence, a hedonist who dyes his graying hair and puts on a corset to endlessly repeat one-time signature hits like “Hi, Baby Love” on lucrative tours while enjoying off-stage the pleasures afforded by booze, drugs and a succession of young wives, the latest being Sophie (Katarina Cas).

In the course of a massive surprise birthday party thrown for him by Sophie, Danny’s presented with the ultimate gift by his long-time manager Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer, reveling in the character’s cynicism): a letter Lennon wrote him after reading an interview the young Danny (Eric Schneider) had given at the beginning of his career. Lennon sent the missive to the interviewer, who pocketed it for himself, but Frank tracked it down, and it proves a life-changer for Collins, who turned to performing jaunty pop tunes penned by others rather than following his own inspiration after one of his albums flopped. Now, inspired by Lennon’s admonition to stay true to himself, he’s determined to reform, sending Sophie packing with her much younger lover Judd (Brian Smith) and taking off for New Jersey, where he plans to look up the son he’s never known, Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), the result of a brief encounter.

One strand of the ensuing story deals with Danny’s efforts to connect with Tom, a contractor with a pregnant wife (Jennifer Garner) and ADHD-stricken daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg) who angrily rejects the old man as too little, too late. Needless to say, Danny’s persistence eventually pays off, especially after a secret about Tom comes out. The other involves Collins’ stay at the Hilton hotel where he takes up residence intending to start writing real songs again. While acting as matchmaker between valet parker Nicky (Josh Peck) and comely clerk Jamie (Melissa Benoist), he strikes up a relationship with Mary (Annette Bening), the hotel manager and recent divorcee who initially resists his charms but gradually warms to his desire for redemption.

Fogelman manages a couple of twists in “Danny Collins” that might catch you unawares, like the outcome to the little gig that Frank arranges for Danny to perform his new material (though he fact that, as far as one can tell, he’s only written one song makes the whole thing implausible). Otherwise, even when he throws in a turn that (like Tom’s secret, or Hope’s ADHD) is meant to come as a surprise, it comes off as formulaic stuff that would barely pass muster in a network telefilm. (The very name of the darling little girl falls like a sledgehammer, especially since it’s endlessly reiterated.) For the most part, moreover, the script follows a narrative path in which one can see the stops well in advance, and in lesser hands the result would have been deadly.

That “Danny Collins” winds up being as pleasant as it is results largely from the cast. Pacino, seemingly refreshed by decent writing after the debacle of drek like “Jack and Jill” (certainly the nadir in a distinguished career), seems to be genuinely enjoying playing this larger-than-life fellow while curbing the inclination to go too far with him; and his engagement proves infectious. Cannavale and Garner make an appealing middleclass couple, and though Tom’s turnaround regarding Danny can’t escape being all too easy, Cannavale pulls it off;, while Peck and Benoist manage to bring a measure of reality to what are really sitcom subsidiary characters. Best of all are Plummer, who tosses off Frank’s gruff observations with perfect timing, and Bening, who actually makes Mary’s officiousness charming simply by flashing a toothy grin.

Fogelman strains too hard to come up with a quirky but satisfying closing note for the picture, and the footage of Tilston during the closing credits seems rather arbitrary, even if he does get a “consultant” credit (after all, the pattern of Danny’s life hardly mirrors his own). Still, while Fogelman’s script is extremely calculated and heavy-handed, the cast’s nimble execution turns it into an agreeable way to pass the time.

DELI MAN

There’s a lot of schmaltz—in both senses of the term—in “Deli Man,” Erik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary. It’s essentially a profile of Houston restaurateur David “Ziggy” Gruber, but also uses him as an entrée into deli cuisine and delicatessen culture as a whole, which is presented as emblematic of Jewish life in America. At once a celebration and a quasi-historical analysis, it may try to stuff too much into a ninety-minute span, but rather like a Dagwood-height pastrami sandwich it’s pretty darned tasty.

Gruber is the proprietor of Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen Restaurant in Houston. Described by his brother as a guy who “has been an 80-old Jew since he was a kid,” Ziggy worked in the business with his grandfather in New York before going off to study haute cuisine with chef Gordon Ramsay. But he returned to his roots to carry on the tradition of his granddad and father. Much of the film is devoted to his work in the deli, supervising the cooking and waiting staff and making sure that the food is authentically prepared and the customers properly chatted up. But his devotion to the deli tradition is also covered: he collects souvenirs from classic delis of the past, and when he goes on vacation with his wife, he visits other delis and compares notes with their equally-obsessed owners.

Those owners are part of Anjou’s film as well, offering observations about their operations—not only in New York and Chicago but Toronto and Los Angeles—some of which remain absolutely traditional while others are experimenting with changes to the menu. What joins all of them together is devotion to a tradition that the picture looks at historically through archival material about New York’s Lower East Side from the mid-nineteenth century to the twentieth (with segments on legendary eateries like Lindy’s, the Stage and Carnegie’s), as well as occasional anecdotes from old-time customers like Jerry Stiller, Larry King and Fyvush Finkel (with a brief cameo by lawyer Alan Dershowitz). Added to that is more scholarly commentary from people like historians Jane Ziegelman, Michael Wex and David Sax. It’s Wex who delivers what’s perhaps the best among the many witticisms dropped in the course of the conversations, when he describes schmaltz—chicken fat—as “the WD-40 of the kosher kitchen—and the KY of the Jewish marriage, too.” Sax, however, strikes a more mournful tone when he observes that deli cuisine derives from the Eastern European shtetls whose populations were destroyed in the Holocaust—“an immigrant food from a place immigrants no longer come from,” as he puts it.

That undercurrent of melancholy carries over into the observation that deli culture seems on the way out, as a result of demographic changes (the film observes the movement of Jews from the north to southern climes, like Houston) and concerns with healthful diets. The film reports that in 1930 there were 1,500 kosher delis in New York’s five boroughs, not counting the non-kosher ones. Now there are around 150 in all of North America. When Ziggy Gruber returns to his grandfather’s old neighborhood with his dad, an old man barely able to walk with a cane, he bemoans the changes that have occurred, wiping out much of the past. His father observes sagely that that’s how life is—things change, people die.

And yet Ziggy, like his similarly devoted colleagues in the business, soldiers on, traveling to participate in a chicken soup contest (which he wins) and tasting his place’s food even though his doctors advise that it’s not exactly the best thing for his heart and his stamina. In Anjou’s savory film—the third in his trilogy about Jewish culture–Ziggy comes across as a real character, and a real mensch.