In an age where racist, sexist or homophobic speech is likely to be shouted down, there is but one conclave of invective that usually goes unchallenged: ageism. Ageism is real and nigh ubiquitous, which is something I find peculiar – only those blessed with luck will be able to reach geriatric status. I do my best, therefore, to block ageist thought when I see it, which is why it doubly pains me to tell you that “Quartet,” a film by seniors about seniors, isn't particularly good.
Dustin Hoffman, yes, THE Dustin Hoffman, makes his official* directorial debut 45 years after “The Graduate” with “Quartet,” adapted from a play by Ronald Harwood. The action takes place in a rather posh retirement home for classical musicians and concludes with a Verdi recital that, storywise, serves the same function as Mickey & Judy saying “hey, let's put on a show.”
First we meet Billy Connolly, who all but announces he's ready to haul ass to Lollapalooza. He's crude to the nurses and urinates on the croquet pitch. Charming. Then there's Pauline Collins, whose just a cut-up, because she's suffering from dementia and acts like a child. This is an absolute scream until the movie decides it needs a quick injection of pathos and decides to let her illness get serious and everyone can look sad around her hospital bed.
Far more dignified is Tom Courtenay, the only one who comes out of this picture unscathed. He's a stick in the mud (Lady Ga-WHO? Never heard of her!) but at least is willing to expand his horizons, as is evidenced by his googling the term “rap.” As it happens, these three used to be part of a renown singing group and when a van pulls up with Maggie Smith in tow the titular quartet is back together again.
But not so fast! Two major hurdles stand in the way. Courtenay is still licking his wounds over a broken heart (he and Smith were once briefly married) and Smith has to accept the reality of her winter years. She can't hit the high notes like she once could, but she can still sing, dammit, and as long as there is there is the breath of life there is music and bah bah bah oh God make it stop I can't take any more cliches.
When the four decide to sing they sell more than enough tickets to save the old folks' home, but this is such a ridiculous anticlimax that they can barely look you in the eye when the plot point hits. It is done away with in a quick line of dialogue; maybe everyone was just too ashamed to go into it any more. “Quartet” is polite enough to be short, I'll give it that much. Plus Michael Gambon runs around in a bedazzled housecoat just daring you to compare him to Dumbledore.
* I say official because there are rumors that he actually did most of the directing on the 1978 film “Straight Time,” plus I recall reading an article about the 1992 film “Hero,” which implied that he basically shadow-directed many of the scenes. You can also check out the behind-the-scenes stuff from 1981's “Tootsie” to see how much more-than-just-an-actor input he had on that one, much to director Sydney Pollock's chagrin/delight.