Starring Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly. Written by Ronald Harwood. Directed by Dustin Hoffman. PG. 98 min. Opens Jan. 18.
Thank heavens for Billy Connolly. Cast as a skirt-chasing opera singer in Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet, the Scottish septuagenarian gives a sly old pro’s performance, picking his teeth with playwright Ronald Harwood’s meaty dialogue. In a movie that is intended at least partly as a tribute to senior-citizen stars, Connolly does his part to seem worthy.
He’s not only better than his co-stars, he’s better than the material. This is a fairly standard getting-the-band-back-together dramedy, supposedly lent emotional ballast by the fact that its characters—former musicians rattling around a private retirement home out in the English countryside—can see the end of the line more clearly than their past glories. The announcement of a benefit concert to save the cash-strapped facility spurs Wilfred (Connolly), Cissy (Pauline Collins), and Reginald (Tom Courtenay) to try to talk the domineering Jean (Maggie Smith) to join them for a run-through of the famous Act Three quartet from Rigoletto—despite the fact that Reginald is still smarting over being dumped by Jean when he was younger. Further complicating matters is the fact that the former object of his affections is now an intractable old diva terrified of tarnishing her legacy with an imperfect performance.
This just delays the inevitable, however: We know that the quartet is going to sing, and there’s nothing to do but wait it out in the meantime. In his directorial debut, Hoffman keeps things moving along, but he can’t overcome the stage-bound nature of the story and frequently resorts to lame montages to gloss over the fact that his cast members can’t actually belt out a credible aria between them. Leaving aside Connolly’s rascally energy, Quartet feels worn-out and lifeless, even as it celebrates the act of rising bravely to the occasion.