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Hoffman’s charming 'Quartet' a little movie with big heart

POSTED: January 24, 2013 1:00 a.m.

If Dustin Hoffman ever decides to quit acting, he could have a fine second career as a director. “Quartet” is Hoffman’s official directorial debut, and it is a joyous film.

I say “official” because Hoffman was the initial director of 1978’s “Straight Time,” but after a few days of filming he handed the directing duties over to Ulu Grosbard.

With “Quartet,” Hoffman foregoes an acting role to focus on helming the project, yet the movie unmistakably bears his fingerprints.

“Quartet” is built around the oldest premise in the musical genre. The characters must put on a show to raise money to save the (fill in the blank). The only thing that changes from film to film is what’s at stake.

That’s exactly what sets this movie apart from others like it.

The characters here live in a home for retired musicians. It’s a lovely stone manor in the English countryside, an idyllic setting in which musicians and singers can live out their days.

However, such posh accommodations are incredibly expensive, and the existence of the home depends on an annual gala at which the residents perform. The ticket sales are crucial to the home’s funding.

That “let’s put on a show” premise is imbued with peculiar gravity when dozens of lovable, enormously talented people may lose their home — people who are already dealing with the usual fears and anxieties of aging.

It helps that the home happens to be populated by a who’s who of British theater and music.

The principals are played by Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins, each of whom is wonderful. And they are surrounded by seemingly an entire generation of legendary performers.

Seriously, make sure you watch the end credits, which remind us of each of the actors’ most famous roles. The sheer volume of talent and experience represented on screen in “Quartet” is astonishing.

“Quartet” is a profoundly inspiring movie. Death is an inevitability for these characters. Each of them could pass at any moment, and they are constantly aware of it, every day. Yet they continue to create and to perform.

They want what all of us want — to spend our final years among people we love and to be able to do what we love most. It’s just lucky for us, the audience, that what they love most is to entertain.

At one point, two secondary characters, played by the great character actors David Ryall and Trevor Peacock, rehearse the old standard, “Are You Havin’ Any Fun?” The scene lasts a couple of minutes and doesn’t further the story at all. It’s merely a fun little performance that transitions from one act to another.

Technically, the scene could be taken out of the film and not missed. But the lyrics sum up the central theme perfectly: “You better have some fun / You ain’t gonna live forever / Before you’re old and gray, feel OK / Have your little fun, son!”

The characters in “Quartet” don’t exactly rage against the dying of the light; instead they perform to keep that light shining.

At one point, Reg (Courtenay) is trying to convince Jean (Smith) to seize the day and sing in the gala. Jean asks, “Are you telling me to smell the roses?” Reg replies, “No, I’m telling you to sing.”

That’s the message of “Quartet” in a nutshell, and it doesn’t apply only to those in their golden years.

The movie is also hilarious. The house is full of divas and divos. The women preen competitively, and the men jab playfully at each other. A running joke has them comparing how many curtain calls they used to take when they performed their signature roles.

Hoffman directs with an actor’s eye, giving his actors the freedom to play and the time to develop their characters.

“Quartet” is a little film with huge heart, timeless message and a generation of talent.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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