It's not entirely fair to compare "Quartet," Dustin Hoffman's lukewarm directorial debut, to "Amour," a critically acclaimed foreign film nominated for five Oscars. They're both about retired classical musicians -- what are the odds? -- but the similarities end there. The latter confronts old age without a trace of fear, while Hoffman's film is constantly clicking its heels to prove that it's still spry.
"Quartet" tells the story of several residents of the Beecham House for Retired Musicians who are preparing for an important benefit concert. At first they are a happy trio: the lovably lecherous Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), silly Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) and good old Reggie Paget (a very touching Tom Courtenay). New arrival Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) is the one who opens old wounds and tangles old webs.
"Quartet" has an interesting back story: Ronald Harwood wrote the script from his 1999 play, which was inspired by "Tosca's Kiss," a documentary about a real-life musicians' home founded by Giuseppe Verdi. You can see why Hoffman, 75, might be drawn to the material: It's fertile emotional territory (romance, regret) with built-in metaphors (art, life). What's more, you couldn't ask for a classier cast. Even the smaller parts are played by the likes of Michael Gambon, as a cranky retiree, and Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones, as a sneering diva.
The characters, however, are skeletally thin. Reggie and Jean share a history (not a very juicy one, alas), but we never really feel the richness of their past; Wilf has a dizzy spell, but we never worry about his mortality. Always cute and breezy, "Quartet" often forgets that its protagonists are in a sobering stage of life, and that there's comedy to be found there as well.
PLOT Old acquaintances reunite at a home for retired musicians.
RATING PG-13 (racy talk, brief but strong language)
BOTTOM LINE Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut boasts a classy cast, but the story is so slim it's skeletal. A few charming moments, but little else.