I’m not sure if retirement comedies can technically be described as a 2012 trend, but retirement comedies starring Maggie Smith as a nasty old piece of work do seem to be on the rise. In Quartet, directed by Dustin Hoffman, Smith plays former opera singer and current diva Jean, a reluctant new arrival at a luxe retirement home in the English countryside that caters entirely to her kind: former stage performers. They’re not exotic, but they are flamboyant, and while Jean is much classier than Muriel Donnelly, Smith’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel character, she shares some characteristics with Muriel, including a capacity for a withering putdown and anti-social tendencies. Jean also needs a new hip, just like Muriel.
It may not surprise you to hear that Dame Maggie gives a characteristically fine performance. Jean is imperious, biting and underneath it all, might be slightly sweet. But Quartet itself is terribly cloying and cutesy. The senior citizens are putting on a show, in honor of Verdi’s birthday, in order to raise money to keep the joint open—with those 14-foot ceilings, the heating bill must be outrageous—and questions of Jean’s much-desired participation (she’s the biggest star at the old folk’s home) supplies the film’s primary narrative drive. Hoffman has filled Beecham House with real-life retired performers—which is quite lovely of him, and if you go, stay to the end to see who all the supporting actors are and the roles they are famous for. Unfortunately he’s also included every geriatric cliché in the books.
Pauline Collins plays the forgetful Cissy, who was once friends with Jean, or as best she can remember it; Jean’s not so wild about her. Cissy is daffy and amiable, edgeless (a far cry from Collins’ most famous character, Sarah in Upstairs Downstairs). Tom Courtenay is Reginald or “Reg,” a well-preserved gent who had some traumatizing interaction with Jean in the past and looks like he’s ready to model for J. Crew Sr. Michael Gambon is Cedric, the muumuu-wearing director of the show, who also suffers from memory loss, which here is portrayed as rather charming. If you want realism, go see Amour.
I’ve saved the character I like the least for last. Wilf (Billy Connolly) is the resident dirty old man of Beecham House, a title no one would dare challenge him for, unless they had an actual court record. Wilf hits on everyone, including Cissy, whose “tits” he remarks on while eating his toast, and most persistently on the very tolerant director of Beecham House, Dr. Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith). The character is included without commentary and his grossness is treated entirely as comic. Being a pervert is his only contribution to the story. He makes Norman, the resident horn dog of the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel seem a model of restraint in comparison. Dr. Cogan would have done the world a favor if she kneed him in the groin. But not at Beecham House, where everyone gamely gums their bread and jam and gets a good chuckle out of old Wilf. Obviously Hoffman and writer Ronald Harwood have never been groped by anyone old enough to be their grandfather.
What do they say about us, these happy fantasies about retirement like Quartet and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (and maybe Trouble with the Curve too, where getting old can at least lead to bonding with one’s grown children)? Perhaps this is the ultimate escapism for an aging boomer population. Maybe we’re desperate to deny the way the end of life looks for so many people: lonely, plagued with worries about medical issues and coverage, the fear of burdening one’s relatives. There’s nothing wrong with escapism; if every movie about aging looked like the wonderful Amour it would wear on the soul. I know I’m happy to see actors like Collins, Smith et al. still getting work, and their demographic being represented on screen. I just wish Quartet offered them more; this gentle comedy is about as enticing as a bowl of gruel.