How is it possible that Dustin Hoffman is 75 years old and just now making his directorial debut?

The actor's first film behind the camera was supposed to be 1978's "Straight Time," in which he also starred. But days after starting production, he decided he couldn't direct and star and do both well. Nearly 35 years later, he finally sat down in the director's chair.

"Quartet" is lighter fare than that with which Hoffman is most often associated. But it's every bit as expert as you'd expect from a man who's been in the business half a century. "Quartet" might have received just one Golden Globe nomination and no Oscar nominations, but don't let that stop you from enjoying this delightful bit of froth.

The group of the title are a reluctant quartet. Reggie (Tom Courtenay), Wilf (Billy Connolly) and Cissy (Pauline Collins) are a trio of opera singers at Beecham House, a "home for retired musicians." They worked together in their prime, and they still work together out of it. They're preparing for a gala no less important than any they did while young: Their English retirement home is in trouble, and they and the rest of the residents hope to raise enough money to keep it afloat.


On screen
» Stars: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins
» Director: Dustin Hoffman
» Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor
» Running time: 98 minutes

They lose their focus on the financial, though, when a new resident arrives. Jean (Maggie Smith) made up the quartet of singers that performed together so many years ago -- and broke it up, along with her marriage to Reggie, just when she became a solo star.

Jean still plays the diva. Cissy is delighted to see her old friend, though; Reggie is not so pleased. He'll have to put his grudge to rest -- at least publicly -- when the idea of performing a scene from "Rigoletto" is hit upon. The former stars should be able to sell plenty of tickets. But though it might seem Jean has come to Beecham specifically to haunt Reggie, she has little interest in performing with him again.

These are familiar themes: aging, jealousy, regret, repentance. But the dialogue is sprightly, and so are the performers. Hoffman the actor turns out to be a casting director of genius. Three of the four -- Courtenay, Connolly and Collins -- do little feature film work these days, but Hoffman coaxes such special work out of them, we're left wondering why. Smith received that Golden Globe nomination and is always a delight on screen, large or small.

Hoffman also shows a good eye for the other elements that go into a film. There are many beautiful shots in "Quartet" that take the story off the stage where it was originally set and into the cinema.

I think this guy has a future in the business.