Quartet (2012)


Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart's 50th Class Reunion.

Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart’s 50th Class Reunion.

(2013) Dramedy (Weinstein) Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Trevor Peacock, Michael Byrne, Ronnie Fox, Patricia Loveland, Eline Powell. Directed by Dustin Hoffman

Going from the spotlight to obscurity must be an incredibly hard situation to accept, particularly when it is age that has relegated you thus. Even the most beautiful and bucolic of environments may pale when compared to the limelight.

Beecham House in the English countryside is certainly a beautiful environment. Named for the noted British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, it is now a retirement home for professional musicians – opera singers, popular vocalists, chamber musicians and the like. Like many such institutions, it faces economic difficulties and relies on benefit concerts staged by its residents, many of whom still have names that resonate on the English music scene.

The upcoming concert marking the birthday of Giusseppe Verdi is the occasion for a kind of organized panic overseen by Cedric Livingston (Gambon) – who pronounces his first name See-dric, not Seh-dric as he reminds Wilf Bond (Connolly) regularly to his great exasperation.

Otherwise, things are pretty much as normal at Beecham House where friends and colleagues Wilf, Reggie Paget (Courtenay) and Cissy Robson (Collins) live a quiet life of looking back. Wilf though is just as concerned with chasing skirt as his libido remains in full flower even if the bloom has withered a bit on the rose. Cissy is growing increasingly forgetful but it is just a part of the indignities of old age. The somewhat courtly Reggie gives lectures to opera to schoolchildren who are more interested in rap. Everything is more or less peaceful.

But things are turned upside down on themselves and into an uproar when the pretty but harried Dr. Lucy Cogan (S. Smith) introduces the newest resident – the diva Jean Horton (M. Smith), one of the most famous and beloved opera singers of her day. However, she had a tumultuous marriage to Reginald that ended with her infidelity. They haven’t spoken in decades.

But worse still Cedric wants a reunion between Jean, Reggie, Wilf and Cissy whose quartet of Rigoletto‘s “Bella figlia dell’amore” was one of opera’s greatest moments ever and has recently been re-released on compact disc – which in itself is a bit anachronistic. Jean however wants no part of it and Reggie while understanding that the revenue such a reunion would generate might well save their home is understandably unenthusiastic for such a grouping. However, he’s game and sets out to change the mind of the diva.

Cissy for some reason seems particularly motivated to see it happen and she befriends Jean who seems somewhat lost and soon the reason for Jean’s reluctance becomes clear – she’s terrified that her voice is gone, that in doing this performance her fans will always remember her for a last debacle instead of the great career she enjoyed. And as the time draws nigh for the performance, it appears certain that there may not be a home for her to live in for much longer.

This is Hoffman’s directorial debut (technically he directed Straight Time for a few days back in 1978 but withdrew after he found it too difficult to direct and act simultaneously – he doesn’t appear hear as an actor for that reason) and he chose his material wisely. As a director he’s smart enough to keep things fairly simple; there aren’t a lot of camera tricks here, the storytelling is simple and elegant. While he doesn’t show anything extraordinary neither does he make any mistakes.

This is based on a play by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, a Hollywood veteran whose résumé includes The Dresser, The Pianist and Being Julia. Like many of his works, Quartet shows Harwood’s fascination for performers and their venues. This shows performers in the twilight of their careers which you’d almost expect from Harwood who is himself a septuagenarian.

The material here holds some interest but it is the actors who really elevate the work. Connolly, one of Scotland’s great treasures, is at his very best here – a charming Lothario who has no problem expressing his sexuality, seemingly fascinated that he still has any. Wilf claims that a stroke left him without any sort of filter so he says what’s on his mind which the others seemingly forgive him for, although the wily Scot may well be just saying that so he doesn’t have to waste time and energy prevaricating.

But Courtenay will be the one I remember here. His quiet gentility has a timeless quality to it. When I think of English gentlemen, it is Reginald Paget that will come to mind. He’s polite and gentle, but also shows fits of outrage and wounded pride from time to time. More than the others he’s accepted who he is and his place in the universe. His mind is still active and seeks to learn more about the world around him but he isn’t especially eager to seek out the world in general. He wants a “dignified senility,” he tells Wilf and you can imagine nothing but for him. Courtenay is one of those actors who has appeared onscreen only periodically over the years but every time he does you find yourself wishing he would appear more often.

Maggie Smith, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her work here, delivers a haunting performance as a diva who is terrified of a future of anonymity and decay. “I used to be someone, you know” she says and it is perfectly clear how important that status was to her, to be someone. Her harsh exterior hides that insecurity that she’ll be forgotten in the end, a fate worse than death for someone like Jean. Smith, who last year performed in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which some have (quite erroneously I think) compared this to, shows once again her extraordinary range as an actress. There are a lot of layers to the character and she nails them all, never hitting a single false note.

Veterans Gambon and Collins also deliver in their roles. Hoffman in a showing of finesse, fills much of the cast with actual retired British musicians and in a bit of a grace note during the end credits shows the mostly elderly cast with their stage credits along with pictures of them from their glory days. Hoffman shows some promise as a director if this acting thing doesn’t work out for him.

I found myself really liking this movie early on from the absolutely magnificent gardens and spaces in Beecham House and environs to the charm of the actors. While there were a few spots which seemed to be a bit on the too-sweet side, for the most part this is a really good movie that has to do with aging gracefully which I suppose anyone could do if they had a place like Beecham House to do it in – a place filled with music in all hours and in all corners. I could certainly retire happily to a place like that.

REASONS TO GO: Connolly is a gem. Courtenay, Smith and Collins are very much underrated who make the most out of every opportunity. Gambon is marvelous. Beautifully shot.

REASONS TO STAY: Can get treacly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there and some mildly sexual suggestive dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie of the same title that Maggie Smith has been in; the first Quartet came out in 1981 and is completely unrelated to this one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: How About You?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Intermedio

Love and Other Drugs


Love and Other Drugs

Jake Gyllenhaal and Oliver Platt practice their Blues Brothers routine.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Josh Gad, Hank Azaria, Gabriel Macht, Judy Geer, George Segal, Jill Clayburgh, Katheryn Winnick, Kate Jennings Grant, Kimberly Scott, Nikki Deloach, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold. Directed by Edward Zwick

We’re obsessed by love and its close physical cousin, sex. We write songs about it, make movies about it, write reams of poems and self-help books about it, and pray for it in our most fervent nights of loneliness. We’ve even tried to make drugs that will improve it, but in the end the human heart cannot be saved by any pills or salve.

Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) is the kind of guy that can sell anything. He is suave, sure of himself, charming and handsome. He can sell stereo equipment – or himself as a bed partner, and does both with equal success. Well, one more than the other to be sure.

After being fired from his latest job for sleeping with the manager’s girlfriend (in the storage room in the back to make things worse), he has to face his parents (Segal and the late Jill Clayburgh). His dad is a successful doctor in Chicago as is his sister (Gold). His brother Josh (Gad) is a software geek whose IPO has made him wealthy and whose trophy wife has made him crazy. Jamie, a chronic underachiever who dropped out of med school, is a disappointment.

Josh gets him an interview at Pfizer and Jamie does well enough to get a job in the heartland (I hear Ohio although the movie is filmed mostly in Pittsburgh and environs) pimping Zoloft for Bruce Winston (Platt), who dreams of a promotion to Chicago where he may spend more time with his family. He recognizes that Jamie might just be the guy to get him there.

The tough nut to crack here is Dr. Stan Knight (Azaria), a dedicated Prozac guy who is tight with Trey (Macht), the matinee idol ex-Marine rep who sells it. After being rebuffed time and time again about placing free samples in the doctor’s pharmacy, he at last wins Dr. Knight with a thousand dollar check that allows Jamie to “shadow” Dr. Knight for a day. It is then that he meets Maggie Murdoch (Hathaway), a 26-year-old Parkinson’s patient who needs her meds replaced. She also has a blotch on her breast, which she shows to the good doctor – and Jamie, who is introduced to her as an intern. When she later finds out he is a pharmaceutical rep, she hits the roof. However, the charming Jamie is taken by her and manages to sooth her enough to get an invite for coffee. This leads to frenzied sex on her living room floor.

Thus begins a strange courtship that both agree will be strictly physical. Jamie is perfectly all right with that – Maggie is a tiger in the bedroom (or any other place the urge to fornicate takes them) and a no strings attached situation is perfect for him. Maggie has her own reasons – she doesn’t want to get close to someone only to have them leave once they figure out how exactly what being in love with a Parkinson’s patient entails. It’s happened to her before, after all.

Jamie is struggling as a rep until Pfizer comes out with a new wonder drug – a little blue pill called Viagra. Once that comes out, Jamie’s career is blazing. He is writing more prescriptions than the company can keep up with, which is just fine with them. He is certainly on the fast track for Chicago, and he has an in with Dr. Knight who is a wannabe ladies man which Jamie can certainly relate to – and assist with.

In the meantime, his relationship with Maggie has taken a strange turn – he’s fallen in love with her. It’s never happened to him before, a man who has committed to nothing or nobody before in his life. Now that he has, he doesn’t know what to do. For Maggie’s part, every instinct in her is screaming to get out of this relationship but against her better judgment she is falling for him too. She has to wonder what is going to get in between them first – her illness or Jamie’s career.

This has all the elements of a Hollywood romantic comedy; boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, things go great until either a misunderstanding, a pre-arranged event or a lie get in between them, boy wins back girl in the final reel. However, this isn’t a romantic comedy per se. What it really is about dealing with obstacles.

Director Zwick has some pretty big canvas films on his resume (Glory, The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall) all of which are among my favorite films of the past two decades. He is also one of the creators of the TV series “Thirtysomething” which I think is closer in tone to this movie which is kind of odd because I really didn’t like “Thirtysomething” – I found it whiny. So why did I like this movie?

There are a number of reasons. First and foremost are the performances of the leads. Gyllenhaal has made a number of really good movies (Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko, October Sky) but really hasn’t gotten a multi-layered role that he can truly sink his teeth into until now and he does very well with it. Jamie is basically a good guy wrapped up in layers of self-loathing and oversexed frat boy marked by an ambition to prove his father wrong and a willingness to go through people instead of around them to get what he wants.

As marvelous as Gyllenhaal is, he takes a backseat to Hathaway here. This is her coming out party as a serious actress after years of Disney Channel-esque roles. The potential she hints at in Rachel Getting Married is realized here. She is a scared and lonely woman who desperately wants to reach out and be held but realizes that nobody will want the baggage that comes with her. The pain is palpable and so is the compassion, and at every turn you are simply taken by her. It’s easy to see why Jamie falls in love with her; half the men in the audience would be too.

There is a good deal of sexuality in this movie; in that sense it is honest and true to its own convictions. While the kind of nudity and sex that is shown in this movie was common in the 70s, it is relatively unusual in 21st century Hollywood. Of particular note is that the sex and nudity are germane to the story and the characters, not merely inserted for titillation purposes (forgive the pun). I admire Zwick for having the courage to stick to his guns for the movie; it couldn’t have been easy to convince the studio to allow it and it certainly must have been difficult to get it past the MPAA who are notoriously rough on sex scenes as opposed to violence lately.

Ambition and tenderness can be opposing forces, but one can be a great motivator for the other as well. This is a movie about a real relationship, one that doesn’t go smoothly but could be the salvation of both parties involved. Yes, there is a bit of Hollywood in the mix – too good to be true syndrome – but nonetheless the relationship at the heart of the movie rings true. That’s more than I can say for the great majority of movie romances today, so when you find a good one, you mark it as precious. This isn’t mindless entertainment by any means – a wrenching scene when Jamie meets the husband (Friedman) of a Parkinson’s patient in the advanced stages will cure you of that notion. He details to Jamie what he can expect and tells him in no uncertain terms that his advice to him is to get out of the relationship while he still can. It’s the best scene in the film that doesn’t involve Hathaway.  This is a very good movie that is a little bit flawed to be great but nonetheless it has an Oscar-worthy performance by Hathaway that is worth seeing on its own. You might miss this one among the more hyped films like Burlesque and Little Fockers but this one might be the one you should see.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Hathaway and Gyllenhaal, as well as fine supporting performances by Platt, Gad and Azaria. Takes a good hard look at the cost of loving someone with a degenerative illness.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really the hard-hitting look at the pharmaceutical industry that the book is. Swings wildly between the romantic elements, the drama and the comedy and never really takes a stab at any of them.

FAMILY VALUES: You will see a lot of female breasts and most of them are Anne Hathaway’s. There is also Jake Gyllenhaal’s tush for those keeping track of celebrity flesh. There are also a whole lot of bad words as well as plenty of sexual innuendo not to mention actual sex. In short, probably okay for raging teen hormones but not for those who might not understand the ramifications of sex quite yet.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman” by Jamie Reidy. His book is a non-fiction account of his time as a pharmaceutical salesman for Pfizer. After the book came out, Reidy – who was then working as a salesman for a different pharmaceutical firm – was fired from his job.

HOME OR THEATER: This is the kind of intimate movie that might make for a peculiar date night, but it also could be enjoyed just as easily at home.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men