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The 400-Word Review: Quartet

By Sean Collier

January 25, 2013

I love my adoring, elderly public.

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Ever get really into something new — perhaps flower arrangement, or action figure collection, or tae kwon do — and wish that there was something more you could do with your newfound affinity? That you could somehow add something to a world you’re discovering?

Apparently, that happened recently with Dustin Hoffman and opera. It seems that he’s really, really into opera. If you developed a yen for the art, though, the best you could do is buy some tickets and perhaps enroll in singing classes; Dustin Hoffman, in contrast, can make a movie about how much he likes opera. And then he can trick us into watching it.

That film — Hoffman’s directorial debut — is Quartet, a mostly soporific light comedy starring Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly and dozens of veterans of the West End stage. Our setting is a fictional home for retired musicians, where old folks endeavor to keep their talents and selves alive while making incessant “I’m-so-old” jokes.

The conflict — such as it is — is whether Smith’s character, a faded prima donna, will reunite with her erstwhile lover, Dr. Zhivago’s Tom Courtenay; the two had a ho-hum falling out several decades prior and haven’t spoken since. Once they’re on good terms (a development that occurs with relative ease, despite their avowed hatred), the focus shifts to a campaign aimed at convincing the diva to join her old crew for a reprise of their most famous roles in a gala performance that will save the home...or something.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Quartet; there’s just nothing particularly right about it, either. Hoffman’s work is unremarkable; his camera is capable and wistful, without anything to distinguish it. While the performers are charming and occasionally interesting, they have nothing to do; only Billy Connolly’s hammy baritone is reliably entertaining. Even the unstoppable Maggie Smith can only wring so much out of a script devoid of juice.

It’s pleasant enough to see the roster of fine performers that Hoffman has assembled, many of them offering a bit of their on-stage talents in asides that make up the bulk of Quartet’s runtime. And the light jokes and lighter drama provide something that’s at least inoffensive when stared at for an afternoon. But for true edification on the world of the opera, one would do better to go to an opera. For entertaining cinema, one could go nearly anywhere else.



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