Making "Quartet," a film about life in the spotlight and the drive to stay in the game, doesn't seem like much of a stretch -- or a risk -- for Dustin Hoffman. With a storied career that is still lively, the 75-year-old certainly knows the terrain.
Instead of delving into the human psyche, as he's done so unflinchingly in too many roles to mention, the actor's first turn in the director's chair is a genteel comedy.
Not to get xenophobic about it, but "Quartet" is a quintessentially British production from a quintessentially American actor. It's set in a refined "Masterpiece Theatre"-styled world of aging musicians playing out their final days in a British retirement home that has the elegant comfort of a squire's country estate.
Rather than fading flowers, they are a spirited bunch busy rekindling old flames and settling ancient grudges in between practicing scales. Add a mischievous rake and a diva or two, and you've got a delightful ensemble piece that hums along nicely, but lightly.
No doubt it was "Quartet's" heavy-on-the-acting, easy-on-the-action foundation that drew Hoffman's attention. He certainly has stacked the deck in the casting department, cherry-picking from the U.K.'s upper crust: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon and Pauline Collins.
The film, which Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood adapted from his 1999 play, begins with a day in the life of Beecham House's various eccentrics. The tightest bond is between three opera singers, who were once part of a quartet. Cissy (Collins) is a daffy delight. When she is not rushing to a forgotten meeting, she's got music playing through her headphones.
Reginald (Courtenay) is the scholar of the group, trying to make opera relevant for rap-devoted local youths; his interaction with the teens is one of the film's best moments. Wilf (Connolly) is the resident rake. Young Dr. Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith), the on-staff medic and current object of his affection, is more amused than irritated by the hopeless flirt, his indiscretion chalked up to a mild stroke.
In a theme that seems ever present in movies these days, Beecham House is in financial straits and facing closure. The remedy is the proverbial "let's get the gang together and put on a show," albeit with more panache. The gala will celebrate Verdi's birthday with some appropriately challenging selections from "Rigoletto" and "La Traviata" in this excellent score. The bursts of energy that accompany practices and performances are woven throughout and give the film much of its vigor.
However, the house is in desperate need of a new star. Prayers are answered in the form of reluctant new resident and famed soloist Jean Horton (Maggie Smith). That she was once Reggie's wife adds another layer of tension.
Jean's complexities represent much of the source material for the way the film deals with the ravages of age. Worried that she won't shine quite as iridescently as she once did, she refuses to sing. She's forever checking the mirror, pensive when she finds that the face isn't quite what she wishes anymore.
But the real grist is regret about her career-over-marriage choice that led to her divorce from Reggie. He is still nursing those wounds, and news of her arrival puts him in a royal funk. Courtenay saturates his character with such sadness, anger and affection that he tends to steal any scene he is in.
"Quartet" is very much a performance piece, which plays to Hoffman's strength -- as an actor he knows when to allow this excellent ensemble breathing room and when to tighten the belt. The script has some nice turns of phrase and a lot of sentiment, but never reaches the emotional heights Harwood has in his best work, the Oscar-winning "The Pianist" topping all the rest.
At the end of the day, "Quartet" is about final acts and in that it seems a film with modest aspirations -- no big bang here, just a troupe of old friends trying to put on the best show they can.
* * ½
Rating: PG-13 (for brief language and suggestive humor)
Cast: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Michael Gambon
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes