You've seen this film before: A pack of love-drunk song-and-dancers needs a ton of money to save their home, so they band together to put on a big music show. Can they pull it off? Will the big star agree to take part? Heck, it's the plot of at least two Muppets movies.
But in Quartet, Dustin Hoffman's twilight directorial debut, the stars are neither Muppets nor moppets, but septuagenarians. The film, which takes place in a ridiculously well-appointed retirement home for former classical musicians, acts as both valedictory and wake for an entire passing generation of British actors and musicians—notably Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly and Tom Courtenay, alongside a host of former opera stars.
The film's creaking plot of love lost and found amid still-smoldering musical rivalries is remarkably by the numbers; it's shocking that Hoffmann waited so long to say so little. The ensemble includes the requisite caring doctor (Sheridan Smith), comedic aging Lothario (Connolly) and tragically dippy Alzheimer's patient (Pauline Collins, liar-liar Sarah on Upstairs, Downstairs), who all help an old, proud couple learn to live and love again.
But equally surprising is how much fun it is. Maggie Smith plays Maggie Smith, of course—which is to say she walks around scaring the living shit out of everybody—but by the end it's a lovely and vulnerable performance. Connolly, meanwhile, performs joyful frottage on every scene. While Quartet toys with treacherous sentimentality, it saves itself by virtue of a cheery patience in exposition rivaled only by midafternoon ads for motorized wheelchairs.
If there's a fundamental insight to be gained from the film, it's that old age is not so much a second childhood as it is a second adolescence: a time of adult desires thwarted by powerlessness, in which every lost chance takes on unbearable importance. For much different reasons, both the 14-year-old and the 80-year-old may believe that each new love will be their last.
Following up on France's All Together, starring Jane Fonda, Quartet is the second high-profile film in about a year to feature an ensemble of lovelorn retirees; of the two, Quartet is much less ambitious and much more successful. Because while Hoffman seems very aware he's gently closing the book on an entire generation of entertainers, he nonetheless allows them to do what they've always done best: be entertaining.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Quartet is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.