Sweet and Lowdown

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Sweet and Lowdown

5/10

USA 1999, dir. Woody Allen, stars Sean Penn, Samantha Morton

Woody Allen’s run of so-so pictures continues with Sweet and Lowdown, and on this evidence he is sadly no longer capable of producing the kind of top-notch work he achieved 20-odd years ago with Annie Hall and Stardust Memories. Sean Penn, however, is in peak form, and he proves once again why he’s regarded by his peers as the most talented performer of his generation.

Never mind that he’s yet to win an Oscar, or ever really clicked at the box office. Penn is the one who’s looked up to by most male American actors under 40, and he sets the standard for the new crowd – headed presently by Ed Norton (too choosy) and Phil Hoffman (yet to carry a whole movie) – to aim at. Even the cream of the older generation seem in awe of Penn’s talent. Watch Al Pacino acting opposite him in Carlito’s Way, arguably Penn’s finest hour to date. That expression you see on Pacino’s face is a combination of respect and resignation – he knows Penn’s operating on another level.

Having an actor like Sean Penn starring in an Allen film certainly makes a terrifically refreshing change, especially after the embarrassment of Kenneth Branagh’s Woody impersonation in Celebrity. John Cusack ploughed a similar Allen-shaped furrow in Bullets Over Broadway to greater effect, but here Penn strikes out in entirely new directions, seizing the role of 30s jazz guitarist Emmet Ray and pushing it as far as it will go.

One of the great things about Penn is that he isn’t afraid to be truly obnoxious, and Emmet Ray certainly isn’t a character written to gain the sympathy of an audience. The film is structured as a dramatised documentary – we see episodes from Ray’s chaotic life, interspersed with commentary from real jazz historians including, in a somewhat self-indulgent touch, Allen himself. Many details of Ray’s movements are either absent or contradictory and Allen has fun with the various tangential possibilities these gaps throw up. What’s undisputed is that Ray was a great talent – second only to Django Rheinhardt, whom Ray idolised to the point of incapacity – and a thorough shit in his relationships with women.

The two secondary loves in Ray’s life – secondary behind himself and his music – are played by Samantha Morton and Uma Thurman. Morton’s role of Hattie is a real actor’s showcase, as the character is unable to speak, in direct contrast to the chatterbox Ray, which makes for an awkward courtship. But Allen seems to have difficulty sustaining this portion of the narrative and all to quickly his and Ray’s attentions have switched to Uma Thurman, as a glamorous journalist fascinated by Ray and his world.

It’s at this stage that the film starts to lose its way, and, although Ray eventually realises that deserting Hattie was a grave mistake, it’s too late for both the character and the director. The film basically runs out of steam and ideas, and, although there are plenty of diverting scenes and lines along the way, by the end it all seems dispiritingly inconsequential. Full marks to Penn and Morton, though – it’s just a shame Allen is no longer up to providing a suitably strong vehicle for their talents.


by Neil Young
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