Quartet Predictable and Tepid

QUARTET  (2102)
Directed by Dustin Hoffman
BBC Films, 97 minutes, PG-13
* *

Dustin Hoffman is perhaps the greatest actor of his generation but as a director, he’s no Martin Scorsese. The new British comedy Quartet is akin to having a conversation with a high-IQ slacker–you keep waiting for it to go somewhere, but it never does. It is an unremarkable paint-by-the-numbers vehicle for elderly actors that takes no risks and pulls every punch hence it packs no wallop. Moreover, it’s derivative of many films we’ve seen before, most of them superior. Call it Best Exotic Marigold Hotel set in Buckinghamshire with an operatic soundtrack. It even has a common link to that film: Maggie Smith.

One of my movie-going friends commented that she has Maggie Smith Fatigue–largely because the 78-year-old Dame Smith has been reduced to typecast roles. If you look at what she’s done in the past 15 years, most of it is a variant of her Downton Abbey star cameo turn as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. You know the type–a faded patrician whose aristocratic airs have grown stale, but one that refuses to tamper her egotism or her frosty disdain for perceived social inferiors. Of course, that steely exterior is all surface; inside lurks a woman capable of wit, wisdom, and unexpected compassion. In Quartet Smith’s Dowager Countess is reconfigured as Jean Horton, once the world’s finest operatic soprano. Now she’s old and broke, a charity admission to Beecham House, where past laurels are still good enough to command deference and perquisites.

Beecham House is a special place, a former country estate barely hanging on as a retirement home for master musicians. It’s really an assisted living facility, but at least it sings and swings; in other words, Downton Abbey as a stone music box. Jean is thrust into a facility that not only contains her one-time rival, Anne Langley (Gwyneth Jones); but also the first of three husbands, Reginald Pagent (Tom Courtenay); a doting not-quite-peer, Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins); and the rakish Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly).  Jean, Reggie, Cissy, and Wilf collectively make up the four greatest opera singers of their generation. Alas, that generation was a long time ago–so far in the past, in fact, that Jean refuses to sing lest it destroy her frozen-in-amber illusion of herself as a global diva. She cannot come to grips with either her mortality, or the reality that few outside of Beecham House and its inner circle of patrons remember who she was.

What do we do with this? How do we divert attention from the journey to ashes we all must take?  As has been done in numerous movies, we put the institution in peril. Beecham House needs a serious cash infusion or it will fold within six months. Luckily its annual Verdi’s birthday bash is coming up, and wouldn’t the world’s greatest opera quartet be just the thing to fill the hall and shake loose some serious donations? A final curtain call, if you will. If only Jean will agree. There are, of course, complications. Cissy is tottering on the edge of memory no return, Wilf is more interested in sexual scores than those from Verdi, and Reggie and Jean have major unfinished business. You can probably finish the script from there; in fact, you could probably do better than Ronald Harwood’s screenplay. If Hoffman is serious about directing he will need to do more than simply turn loose his actors, superb though they are.

These old pros offer some redemption for the uninspired script and laissez-faire direction. Maggie Smith doesn’t just mail in her performance; she’s rather affecting as Jean because, for once, she lets us inside enough to feel her conflicted emotions. Pauline Collins is very solid as Cissy, as she walks a thin line in which her self-control is as thin as her grip on her fading mental faculties. She’s at once fawning, exasperating, and tragic. The vastly underrated Tom Courtenay holds Reggie’s smoldering torch with a shaky determination and is so convincing that he adds dimension to what is essentially an underwritten part. Connolly is our Falstaff–a randy satyr whose minor stroke has robbed him of the few filters he ever possessed. He’s equal parts charming and vulgar. There are also delicious small parts–Sheridan Smith playing the lovely and competent Dr. Lucy Cogan, the director whose whip smart instincts help her keep giant egos in check. Dame Gwyneth Jones is also a delight as the puffed up Anne Langley and is a perfect foil for Smith. Michael Gambon likely had a blast in the role of Cedric Livingston, an insufferable impresario who gets to chew scenery and who must have bribed the costume mistress for his popinjay wardrobe.

Does this redeem Quartet? Not really. The film is just 97 minutes long, but it feels longer because it doesn’t have much to say and leisurely fails to say it. It’s so pedestrian that we know what must happen long before it does. Add this film to the list of weak 2012 offerings. I can’t recommend it unless you are looking for pure diversion. But if you do go, a tip: Stay through the credits as there’s a sweet treat in them that’s more endearing than the film itself. --Rob Weir  

No comments: