12/28/2012 08:17 am ET Updated Feb 27, 2013

Movie Review: Quartet

Quartet marks Dustin Hoffman's official debut as a film director, though he was originally slated to direct the 1978 cult hit, Straight Time (and, by some accounts, actually did).

Hoffman is one of the seminal film figures of the 1960s and 1970s, part of a group (including Al Pacino and Robert De Niro) that had the same effect on its generation of actors as James Dean and Marlon Brando did on theirs.

But even his deft touch and a cast of all-stars cannot rescue the kind of blandly schematic comedy that Ronald Harwood has adapted from his own play. I'm a big fan of the kind of charming comedy the British do so well, but Harwood lacks the light-fingered touch or imagination to lift this material beyond the predictable.

Here's the one thing I will say for Harwood: He's managed to make a film about people in a retirement home without having one of them die, to make a dramatic point. Nobody dies in Quartet, though decline is still a factor.

Set in a rural British facility known as Beecham House, the story focuses on the residents: specifically, this is a home for retired musicians. Most of them are classical instrumentalists; there is also a cadre of former opera singers. They live for the annual Verdi's birthday fundraiser, when they get to ply their talents for a paying audience and show that there's still artistic life after retirement.

This year, it seems even more urgent; there are rumored budget shortfalls imminent, so the talent show is particularly crucial to the home's financial life. Fortunately, there is a new box-office attraction: recently retired opera diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), who is about to move into the home and who will help attract a sell-out audience.

Jean's arrival at Beecham House sends a ripple of excitement through the residents, some of whom have worked with her in the past. But retired opera stars Wilfred (Billy Connolly) and Cecily (Pauline Collins) are more eager to see Jean than their pal Reggie (Tom Courtenay), who was briefly married to Jean. Her betrayal sent him into a romantic tailspin from which he never recovered -- and for which he still harbors a grudge.

Harwood's real issues here are the way an artist deals with the way age erodes his or her artistic gifts, despite still loving their art. There are moments -- both serious and comic, usually involving either Connolly or Michael Gambon as a queeny old opera director -- in which Harwood looks at the idea in a touching and thoughtful way.

Most of Quartet, however, is about the minimally interesting personal friction between Jean and Reggie, and the increasingly fleeting grip on reality by the already ditsy Cecily. Harwood has nothing to say about romance that feels fresh, incisive or anything other than clichéd. And his foray into dementia for dramatic effect -- will she bounce back before she has to go onstage? -- seems ill-advised.

These are all skilled actors, capable of making you feel like you're involved with something more substantial than it really is, simply because they are so convincing, even in such middling material. There are certain pleasures to be had in watching them, within Hoffman's clear, unfussy frame (though his use of classical music is quite obvious at times).

But ultimately they strain for the kind of entertainment that ought to simply roll off a piece like this. Eventually, the thinness of the material overcomes even performers as professionally seductive as these are.

Quartet is harmless, a mild blend of comedy and sentiment, heavy on the sentiment and, unfortunately, far too light on the comedy.

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