3 / 5 stars
More than four decades after starring in a film for the first time, actor Dustin Hoffman directs a film for the first time. And for his debut at the age of 75, Hoffman has selected a movie that, frankly, appeals most to his chronological peers (regardless of how spry and youthful the man seems.) An adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s short-lived play, Quartet (not to be confused with A Late Quartet) is aimed right for the senior set, a gentle, warm film about aging stars coming to terms with growing old–played by aging stars who are probably experiencing the same. Hoffman knows and respects his audience, but his film refuses to challenge them: Quartet’s plot is simple and the presentation basic, with rarely a moment that’s aggressive or surprising. Quartet is just, well, appropriately pleasant. (Click on the movie poster for a bigger look.)
Thankfully, Hoffman and Harwood (who’s transposed his stage play for the screen) don’t tug at their audience’s emotions in the process, asking for little investment and giving just about as much in return. Their story takes place in a glorious English manse that’s an old-folks home for retired musicians, many of them previously famous British opera performers way past their prime. Think of it as a Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with sheet music instead of saris.
You can imagine Hoffman would have no problem corralling a superb cast for any film, and the Quartet leads prove that: Tom Courtenay (nominated for Oscars in 1966 and 1984) is the broken-hearted, tight-lipped Reginald; Pauline Collins (nominated in 1990) plays the bubbly, dementia-plagued Cissy; Billy Connolly (the youngest of the four at 70) predictably provides the easy charm and spicy wit as Wilf; and the endlessly engaging Dame Maggie Smith (nominated six times since 1966) is diva Jean Horton, the former superstar who refuses to sing a note knowing she can never sound like her younger self.
For any bland flavor Quartet may leave lingering, these stars more than make up for it, easily providing the most sophisticated of tastes. All four, plus Michael Gambon as an angry, flamboyant show director, have the refinement and vigor to hold our attention regardless of the setting or dialogue. Smith, who’s played this type of role before (not only in Marigold Hotel, but more than 30 years ago as the anxious actress in California Suite) still makes it work, gracefully sharing her character’s disappointment and shame. Her quiet scenes with Courtenay as her ex are lovely and touching, and seem as easy to the actors as breathing.
Harwood’s script goes down some fairly familiar paths, lacking a natural strength and placing even greater reliance on the film’s stars for its success. The plot is practically pedestrian: The retirement home needs a stellar act for its annual musical gala to make enough money to stay open. Of course, three-quarters of the famed Rigoletto quartet spend the film convincing Smith’s Jean to join in and belt out a few notes… and we know just who’ll be standing on stage when the curtain parts.
But it’s easy to tell when likable, sometimes lovable, actors are having a great time, and the Quartet players clearly enjoyed the project and each other’s company. That’s why, despite the film’s shortcomings, Quartet doesn’t come up completely short. The tame tone seems to be in line with Hoffman’s obvious respect for opera and its real-life performers, and it may be just right for the more genteel members of the audience. It may be plain, but Quartet is a fine-enough first for a director getting his “start” at an age when most are contemplating their curtain call.