Quartet: Dustin Hoffman Makes Directing Debut at 75

It’s never too late to become a Hollywood director. At 75, with an impressive acting career (two Oscars, multiple nominations, this year’s honoree of the AFI Life Achievement Award), Dustin Hoffman has decided to direct a movie. Not surprisingly, it’s a serio comedy, an ensemble piece whose best feature is the high caliber of its performers. The cast is headed by the fabulous Maggie Smith, who seems to be on a roll this season; she also contributed to the well-received “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” released with great success by Fox Searchlight.

Beecham House, an ordinarily quiet place for retired musicians, is suddenly abuzz. Since there is not much to do but talk, gossip, reminisce, the denizens are particularly alert to rumors, especially those that might change the status quo, their lives of quiet desperation.

When the tale begins, the rumor circling the halls is that the home for retired musicians is soon to play host to a new. Mysterious resident, who is (and was) a big star. Cut to Jean Horton (the incomparable Maggie Smith), parting with her lovely house and belongings and hitting the road to the Beecham House.

For the main protagonists, Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly), and Cecily Robson (Pauline Collins) this sort of talk is par for the course at the gossipy home. But they’re in for a special shock, when the new arrival turns out to be none other than their former singing partner, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith).

We learn that Jean’s subsequent career as a star soloist, and the big ego and unpredictable temperament that accompanied it, split up their long friendship and ended her marriage to Reggie, who, still in love with her, takes the news of her arrival particularly hard.

The are only two remaining questions, both leading to predictable answers. On a professional level, can the passage of time heal old wounds? And will the famous quartet be able to patch up their differences in time for Beecham House’s gala concert? And on a personal level, can Jean and Reggie forget their past troubles and rekindle their love?

This well-acted, conventional melodrama is obviously made for audiences of a certain age, those who embraced “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which also starred Maggie Smith, earlier in the year, turning it into a box office hit for Fox Searchlight. Senior viewers have justifyingly claimed that there are not many movies (especially good ones) about senior citizens like them, who are still alert and can enjoy a good talk and good music.

Though the entire cast iis good, Maggie Smith stands out as the grande dame, whoose arrival at the center, manages to pset just about every resident–albeit for different reasons. Serving as a showcase for her technical viruosity in delivering a witty line, or a barbed comments that hurts, Underneath its optimism, “Quartet” shows a woman past her prime, who can conceal only up to a point her repressed anger at her diminishing biological and artistic faculties. This is the saving grace of the film, at once grounding it in a recognizable reality and also indicating its inevitable hmanity.

But, alas, visually, this tasteful, well acted British tearoom party is only one notch above Masterpiece Theater. the sort of which Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were known for. I realize that there is a public for such a fare, even if it doesn’t represent my cup of tea.

As director, Dustin Hoffman deserves credit for casting the ensemble film with the best British actors around, and then guiding them to give restrained performance. However, if he wanted to make a bigger splash as a filmmaker, he should have chosen material that’s a bit more outré and provocative, or less safe than this innocuous and harmless entertainment.