TORONTO - It's always news when an acclaimed actor decides to direct their first feature, but it's hard to believe it took Dustin Hoffman 45 years to step behind the camera.  The two-time Oscar winner has gone in an unexpectedly sweet direction for his first directing gig with the slight romantic comedy "Quartet” that debuted Sunday night at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

Set in Beecham House, a swanky retirement home for musicians, "Quartet" first introduces us to the randy and always cheerful Wilfred (Billy Connelly), his best friend Reginald (Tom Courtney) and their former colleague Cecily (Pauline Collins).  Years ago, the trio were popular British opera singers, but today they are enjoying their wayward years surrounded by their peers who love living at Beecham.  Of course, before you know it, a predictable conflict centered on the home’s financial difficulties is introduced, but it lingers lazily in the background.  You never really fear anyone is in danger of getting kicked out on the street.  The true drama centers on the arrival of the trio's one time singing partner and famous diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith).  Back in the day, the group formed a quartet that recorded an influential opera album that’s such a masterwork it's been recently re-released on CD.  Unbeknownst to the young doctor running the facility (Sheridan Smith, playing the straight woman to all the star's antics), Jean and Reginald are former lovers who haven't spoken to each other since 1997 (oh my). And, initially, Reginald is not happy to see that Jean has moved onto his turf.  As the other musicians get ready for the home's annual fundraiser in celebration of Verdi's birthday, the trio have to figure a way to get Jean to participate in the grand finale (her starpower will help sell tickets apparently) and get the two lovebirds back together.

You can see where the story lines are headed a mile away, but Hoffman's only care is that the actor's charismatic performances charm the pants off you. The plot is secondary to the overall experience.  And, for the most part, there is enough energy from the ensemble to make it work. Smith gets to deliver a slew of her now trademark zingers and Connelly is effective comic relief.  Courtney, a former Oscar nominee for his work in “Doctor Zhivago,” doesn't have much to do except forgive Smith's character (although that's more the fault of the script than anything else).  Surprisingly, it's Collins who has the film’s juiciest part. As the film progresses, Cecily’s mild dementia starts to worsen and seriously concern her friends.  At first it's played to humorous effect, but the tragedy of her condition eventually comes to light in the picture's best scene.  After a confrontation with Jean, Cecily has a fall and gets knocked out. When she wakes up from the accident she is unable to recognize anyone but one of the facility nurses. Hoffman lets Collins really shine here and if there is any awards recognition in the cards for “Quartet” its in her impressive turn.

Overall, this is a very solid directorial effort for the 75-year-old American acting icon who's been rumored to have co-directed many of the films he's starred in over the years. If he decides to helm again, you just hope he has a screenplay with a little more depth at his disposal.  Like the other major actors of his generation, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Hoffman clearly has an eye for what works on the big screen and it would be intriguing to see him tackle an intensely more serious drama.

Many will compare the dramedy to Fox Searchlight’s recent senior citizen hit “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (which also starred Smith), but “Quartet” doesn’t have the same “fish out of water” storyline that helped the indie breakout at the box office. That being said, the popularity of “Downton Abbey” has made Maggie Smith hip all over again and The Weinstein Company should easily be able to use her and Connelly’s comic bits to generate interest among its key demographic. "Quartet" is currently opening in limited release on Dec. 28, but the studio would be smart to hold the picture for a less competitive spring opening for maximum financial returns.

“Quartet” is currently scheduled to open in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 28.