Quartet, the directorial debut from Dustin Hoffman, is a pleasant romp with familiar faces all game for a good time. Based on the play by Ronald Harwood, and feeling very much like a stage production, the story of Britain’s finest musicians living among each another in a specialized retirement home offers few surprises, but compensates with an abundance of cheer. Similar to the recent Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in content and its use of Maggie Smith, the films seem destined to share an audience, though the lightness of Hoffman’s work makes it the lesser of the two.
Throughout the Downton Abbey-like Beecham House, music continues to be performed by its once-famous residents. Providing a steady and varying soundtrack, the compositions serve as a pleasant constant and give the setting a somewhat magical quality. Among its purveyors is a solid cast of Britain’s best, anchored by Tom Courtenay’s Reg Paget. A renowned singer, his stoic features emanate a sense of wisdom and maturity, especially when set against the running off-color comments by his best friend Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly). Unable to censor himself after a stroke, Wilf doles out a wealth of horny old man comments, and though the schtick steadily wears thin, the appealing contrast between he and Reg does not.
Their dynamic, and that of Quartet at large, is disrupted when Jean Horton (Smith) moves in. Playing yet another sharp-tongued old English woman, Smith is her usual delightful self, though the continuity from role to role has grown problematic. Her addition is likewise cause for concern to Reg, who mysteriously loathes her and balks at his friend Cissy Robson’s (Pauline Collins) request to reunite the three of them with Wilf to perform their famed recording of “Rigoletto” for the annual Verdi birthday celebration. As various factors force Reg to confront his past, the quartet connect and fall apart, running the gamut of fogey humor on their way to a fluffy though effective conclusion.
The content is so light, however, that death, which gave Marigold Hotel’s mirth a welcome depth, barely enters into the equation. While there’s a great deal of merit in the film’s positivity and its message of living life to the fullest, the general thwarting of dramas beyond old grudges adds up to a fairly contrived experience. The same goes for Hoffman’s straightforward direction, which gets the job done but lacks any distinguishing qualities. The absence of flashiness suits the limited subject matter well, and though Connolly and a mouthy Michael Gambon (with his Harry Potter wardrobe in tow) provide all the excitement the script can handle, the film nonetheless wants for substance.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor.
Quartet is currently playing at the Fine Arts Theatre on Biltmore Ave. at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.