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Article updated: 1/24/2013 6:25 AM

Performances and Hoffman's direction buoy plot-challenged 'Quartet'

By Dann Gire

Sopranos, I'm told, reach the zenith of their powers during their 20s; basses reach theirs during the 40s.

Dustin Hoffman's auspicious directorial debut "Quartet" proves that actors playing sopranos, tenors and basses don't have expiration dates on their zeniths at all.

Hoffman, the iconic baby boomer star known mostly for his role as Benjamin Braddock in "The Graduate," is now 75.

In "Quartet," Hoffman directs with quiet assurance an uplifting valentine to aging geezers who continue to sing, act and act up at a British retirement home for musicians, a posh estate that could pass for the AARP version of the performing arts high school from "Fame."

Not much action occurs in the plot-challenged "Quartet" outside of "Harry Potter" veterans Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon reuniting on the silver screen.

The day-to-day routine of the residents at Beecham House gets thrown into a tizzy upon news that legendary opera diva Jean Horton (Smith) will be staying there.

Her arrival is greeted with less enthusiasm by longtime Beecham resident Reggie Paget (Tom Courtenay). His marriage to Jean lasted a whole nine hours before he found his new bride in a compromising clinch with another man.

Reggie can't bear to even look at Jean at first. Then, in what passes for conflict in Ronald Harwood's own adaptation of his 1999 stage play, the Beecham House annual fundraiser concert requires Jean and Reggie to reunite for a rendition of Verdi's "Rigoletto" along with cuter-than-a-button Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) and the saucy Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly).

Persuading Jean to join the "Rigoletto" trio (to make it a quartet) takes up most of the movie's first hour, so, clearly, "Quartet" won't be appealing to the Michael Bay short-attention-span demographic.

Instead, Hoffman opts for an Altmanesque take on Harwood's script (albeit without the overlapping dialogue), letting the lovable, troubled characters -- all the Beecham residents, including Gambon's bullying director Cedric Livingston -- become the movie's center attraction.

Courtenay and Smith ply their characters with a layer of performer's pride slathered over emotional hurt that has been simmering for a long time. Collins, alias "Shirley Valentine" from the 1989 comedy, supplies youthful fun as Beecham's most carefree resident.

Connolly's sexual predator wannabe, Wilf, could easily have passed into creepy old man territory, but Connolly knows just when to scale back on his salacious overtures to the blonde, attractive Beecham House doctor (Sheridan Smith) to retain our good will.

Cameraman John de Borman employs enough widescreen cinematic compositions so that "Quartet" never looks like a photographed stage play.

Plus, this movie uses every excuse possible to take the talking characters out of their staterooms and into the expanse of the great outdoors.

Oh, yeah. Stick around for the closing credits, for then you will see that the entire supporting cast of aging Beecham House musicians are the real deal.

We see the actors as they appear in the movie next to photos of their younger selves performing in operas and shows from 30 or more years ago.

Who woulda thunk it? Benjamin Braddock did well on his first feature directing job -- even if I admittedly felt a little cheated that we never actually see the quartet perform "Rigoletto" at the end.

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