** (out of four)
Obviously someone like Keith Richards would never check into a retirement home for musicians. He's lived like a rock star, and he'll die like a rock star.
No, in Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, “Quartet,” only elderly opera singers and classical musicians populate Beecham House, and unlike the devastating portrait of aging in Michael Haneke's “Amour,” “Quartet” favors cheeky over honest.
“This is not a retirement home; this is a madhouse!” exclaims Jean (Maggie Smith of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Downton Abbey”), a big star whose arrival flusters her ex, Reg (Tom Courtenay), who’s still smarting over something in their past. Many years ago, Jean, Reg, salty sexpot Wilf (Billy Connolly) and Sissy (Pauline Collins) were a legendary quartet—presumably, contrary to the recent “A Late Quartet,” these folks were always on time—but Jean's not interested in singing anymore.
A shame, since they all conveniently reside at Beecham and are in generally good health.
Aside from a gentleman wheeled out on a stretcher and constant dialogue about the unfortunate inevitability of aging, “Quartet” contains few visual reminders of illness or death. Adapting his play, writer Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”) keeps things light, from Reg teaching young kids about opera (“Lady Ga-who?” he asks, after a student voices fondness for you know who) to Wilf's constant flirtations with the residents and staff. Yes, he actually refers to his veteran downstairs bits as “seasoned wood.”
The fine British cast needs no defense, and occasionally “Quartet” finds a moment of real sensitivity. Mostly, Wilf proposes “rumpy pumpy” and old wounds are forgotten relatively easily with the lesson of living while you can. Plus—spoiler alert!!!—hiring non-singers as the main characters means we never see the quartet sing together. Consequently, the supposedly triumphant, low-drama climax deserves to get booed off the stage.
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