By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
When he came along as a movie star in the mid-’60s, Dustin Hoffman epitomized a new style of American actor: He was a rough-edged, serious player in a gritty American mode, not someone from the classical tradition.
Maybe that’s why you’d think Hoffman would be the last person to direct “Quartet,” a movie that (whatever its plotline might be about) is a celebration of classical British acting. The talent on display would fit the great room at “Downton Abbey,” and everybody’s working in a high theatrical style.
The queen bee is “Downton” resident Maggie Smith, whose late-career resurgence as a kind of Dowager Don Rickles, firing off withering one-liners between sips of tea, continues apace here. She plays a former opera diva whose arrival at a retirement residence causes waves of excitement in the place, which caters to musical veterans.
No one’s more shocked than her onetime husband (Tom Courtenay), who is not at all pleased at seeing the grand dame move in. Courtenay, whose career goes back before “Dr. Zhivago,” gives the quietest and tastiest performance in this ensemble.
Along with the resentments that follow the diva’s arrival, the retired impresario (Michael Gambon) at the residence decides to put four great singers together again for a fundraising program. This quartet will include the ex-marrieds, along with a randy Billy Connolly and a dotty Pauline Collins.
The script, which Oscar-winner Ronald Harwood adapted from his own play, is the kind of comedy in which maladies are played for laughs (with dutiful serious moments, clearly marked as such). So Connolly’s sex-talking codger is unable to moderate his chatter because of the effects of a stroke, and Collins’ silliness is the leading edge of her encroaching dementia.
Don’t get me wrong, both actors are expert at what they do. But there’s something way too easy about that kind of humor, even when the tone is lightweight.
As a director (he doesn’t act in the film) Hoffman keeps the focus on the performers, which is not surprising. In a better movie, the theme of what creative artists do when their creative peak is behind them could be a rich topic, but “Quartet” barely alludes to that before it goes for the jokes.
One pleasant sidelight: Many of the supporting players in “Quartet” are real-life veterans of the opera and classical music world, and they lend a nice air of authenticity to the backgrounds. Stick around for the final credits to see who’s who and read their impressive credits.
“Quartet” (2 stars)
A very lightweight comedy about what happens in a retirement home for classical-music veterans when an opera grand dame (Maggie Smith) arrives. The cast includes Tom Courtenay and Billy Connolly and everybody’s expert at this sort of thing, but the film really skims the surface in a way that fails to ignite. Dustin Hoffman directs, but does not appear on screen.
Rated: PG-13 for language.
Showing: Harvard Exit.