‘Quartet’ deserves an encore

Maggie Smith is a goddess. Photo from Slant Magazine.

Maggie Smith is a goddess. Photo from Slant Magazine.

Tee hee, aren’t old people hilarious? They lack control over their bodily functions. They have trouble remembering things. They don’t even know who Lady Gaga is! That’s funny, right? Right?

…Or, at least, that’s the approach it looked like “Quartet” was going to take, but nope. It seems pop culture has finally taken the “respect your elders” mantra to heart, and this film is reverent, gently funny and surprisingly sensitive about the subtle ways that getting old sucks, but shines a light on the bright side as well.

Straight-laced Reggie (Tom Courtenay), randy Wilf (Bill Connolly) and spacey Cissy (Pauline Collins) are all immensely enjoying life at Beecham House, an upscale retirement home for former musicians (mostly opera singers or symphony orchestra players). They’re even taking great joy in preparing for the upcoming concert, which will keep the House funded for another year. But their perfect balance is thrown out of whack when former diva Jean (Maggie Smith) arrives, attracting a storm of attention and unearthing old memories and feuds.

If you’ve heard this plot summary before (and you likely have), you’re probably familiar with “Fame,” “Glee” or a gazillion other such “let’s put on a show and have lots of witty soapy drama” stories. “Quartet” is hardly an original film, but it’s got several key aspects that make it stand out from the pack.

Maggie Smith shines once again in “Quartet,” proving she’s much more than just Professor McGonagall. Not that there’s anything wrong with Professor McGonagall. Photo from IMDB.

The first is the performances. Courtenay, Connolly and Collins are endlessly lovable and funny in their own ways, but Collins in particular manages to give the film a lot of its subtle gravity. It would have been so easy for her to play her character’s Alzheimer’s for a cheap joke, but Collins believes so wholeheartedly in the character that you’d feel churlish for laughing. The rest of the ensemble is spectacular as well, with Michael Gambon’s pompous director standing out in particular as a hammy comic gem.

But the film belongs to Smith, who is incredible in how she manages to find new variations on the archetypal Maggie Smith character (see: “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Downton Abbey”) within the limits of the film. She’s still charmingly brittle and brisk (hearing her drop the f-bomb is worth the price of admission), but she simultaneously projects a fragility that wasn’t nearly as prevalent in some of her other projects. First-time director Dustin Hoffman gives her the space for her triumphant little grace notes.

Speaking of which, Hoffman and writer Ronald Harwood (who wrote the play the film is based on) really seem to get music and theater, which helps steer the film away from mawkish clichés. From Reggie’s brief treatise on the similarities between rap and opera (“Opera is when a man is stabbed and instead of dying, he sings. Rap is the same, except he talks,”) to the (mostly) good-natured diva banter between members of the House about their brightest moments, the film is a treasure trove of witty commentary on the minds of performers without delving into the shrill and obvious.

As mentioned earlier, the film’s portrayal of how aging affects people is deft and respectful, even if it doesn’t dive deep enough. Unlike the recent “Amour,” which relentlessly pushed the “This is very serious, dammit!” button to exhausting effect and diminishing returns, “Quartet” mostly addresses the darker side of aging (like Cissy’s Alzheimer’s) in passing, but is all the more effective for it. Such grandstanding would have come across as preachy and insulting in such a lighthearted film, anyway. The movie finds lightness and even humor in the characters’ plights, but doesn’t have fun at their expense or trivialize them. It also acknowledges the surprising richness of their lives and their connections with others, rather than simply using them as props like other films have.

Now, this is not a deep or challenging movie, not by any standards. It’s all very sweet and gentle and pleasant, but that’s really all it needs to be. It’s a solid dramedy that’s certain to put a smile on your face, and give you a pleasant tune to hum as you leave.

Speakeasy Grade: B+

Starring: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Bill Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor

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