QUARTET (PG-13) Dustin Hoffman makes his official directorial debut (he was the original director of the underrated, gritty and brilliant 1978 crime movie Straight Time, before Ulu Grosbard took over when Hoffman failed to deliver the goods) with this emotionally rote, earnest yet engaging movie about a group of elderly opera singers living in the fading glow of their earlier artistic glories at a home for retired musicians. A few of the residents of Beecham House—the lecherous though irresistibly enchanting Wilf (Billy Connolly), the bubbly yet spacey Cissy (Pauline Collins), the commanding diva Jean (Maggie Smith) and her forlorn ex-husband Reginald (Tom Courtney)—are asked to perform for a charity fundraising event. Years ago, the four singers previously performed Rigoletto together, but now the reunion feels the strain because of oversized egos, bruised feelings and melancholic memories.
Not surprisingly, Hoffman gives his stellar veteran cast plenty of room to do their respective things. Although the tone of Quartet slips into the gentle melancholic at times, there is a continuous buzz of joy throughout it. The movie generates some feeble suspense about Jean's insistence not to be involved with the reunion, but, although it's clear that the situation will conveniently resolve itself, there is enough warmth from the actors to keep this cinematic trifle amusing. It helps that Smith is a casually brilliant performer, easily generating a few scene-stealing moments out of such otherwise forgettable material. The other performers are no slouches in that department either. Connolly, Collins, Courtney and Michael Gambon, playing the jaundiced fuddy-duddy director Cedric, all craft their own special moments, and it's their appeal married with a breezy professionalism that keeps Quartet more entertaining than the material warrants.
Screenwriter Ronald Harwood (the movie is based on his play) has focused on backstage drama before, namely with The Dresser (starring Courtney and Albert Finney) and Being Julia (starring Gambon and Annette Benning). It's all rather manipulative and self-congratulating in the manner that most middle-of-the-road prestige ventures like this are guilty of being. But it's difficult to be too harsh when considering that quieter craftsmanship such as Quartet is frequently shunted aside in today's movie marketplace, where brawny, obnoxiously frenetic live-action cartoons dominate. Quartet never really earns its on-screen encore, and it sure could use a jolt of adrenaline to boost its energy level, but it has something unique other movies in release don't have: old school charm.