Sweet and Lowdown
Reviewed in February 2000
Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman, Anthony LaPaglia, James Urbaniak, Gretchen Mol, Brad Garrett, John Waters. Screenplay: Woody Allen.

Photo © 1999 Sony Pictures Classics/Sweetland Films/
Magnolia Productions
Woody Allen extends his slump of the last few years with Sweet and Lowdown, a film that combines the worst characteristics of his two most recent outings: the overweening cruelty of Deconstructing Harry, the formal and narrative laziness of Celebrity, and the tired artist-as-misanthrope theme of both films. What emerges from that combination, which I admit many critics have embraced much more warmly, strikes me as a half-conceived pastiche of scenes and ideas already familiar from Allen's earlier, better work. As such, despite some nice early moments and the rewarding contributions of virtuoso star Sean Penn and the younger, much-heralded Samantha Morton, Sweet and Lowdown may even constitute Allen's least satisfying work since Shadows and Fog, amplifying concerns that the Woodman has not got much left to tell us.

Penn stars as Emmet Ray, a 1930s jazz guitarist whose impeccable artistry, as is usually the case in Allen's films, is his sole virtue as a human being. The effort, ambition, and sensitivity Emmet puts into his playing stand in utter contrast to the mulish nastiness and emotional lockdown that characterize his relationships with other people. All through the picture, Emmet's friends, lovers, and antagonists reiterate a hypothesis at which they have all independently arrived: if he would permit the same range and depth of expression into his personal life that he pours into his playing, he might be a happier, less dissolute man. Indeed, by nourishing his humanity, he may even improve his musicianship, for which his reputation among aficianados remains second to that of Django Reinhardt (a real historical figure, for those like me who need the tip-off). Emmet's superficial diminishments of Django, whom he consistently refers to as "that Gypsy over in France," utterly fail to conceal his envy and, moreover, his reverence for the man. On the two occasions when the two men's paths have nearly crossed, Emmet has either bolted from the room or passed out from nervous anxiety. His behavior suggests a biologically-rooted unwillingness to perceive anyone else's assets, much less their potential superiority. Reinhardt is the only person in the world whose virtues Emmet concedes even at the level of ambivalent abstraction. Thus he is also the only person whom Emmet tries to acknowledge in ways that spectacularly fail, instead of just abusing, exploiting, or ignoring him the way he does everyone else.

Allen has organized Sweet and Lowdown as a "documentary" about Emmet's late career, introducing each sequence of the main narrative with talking-head commentaries from real-life jazz enthusiasts including Allen himself and Douglas McGrath, his collaborator on the terrific screenplay for Bullets Over Broadway. As a structuring principle or a comedic device, the interviews don't add much. As the film continues, one wonders if Allen realized he had conceived a compelling character but neglected to provide him with much of a story; the guise of documentary, which Allen already used to funnier effect in 1983's Zelig, comes across here as padding for a weakly-plotted film. I even began to suspect that the period recreation of 1930s boardwalks, music-halls, and boudoirs, however fussily and colorfully rendered, was being served as visual compensation for a narrative that wasn't going anywhere. Given that not only Zelig and Bullets but also Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Radio Days occupied the same basic 20s/30s milieu, the sense of déjà vu grows even harder to ignore. Even those tech elements that augur some exciting departures, like the recruitment of Raise the Red Lantern cinematographer Zhao Fei, turn out to be disappointments. I can't claim to observe the finer points of lensing or light with the world's most trained eye, but I must also admit I couldn't find much to admire in Zhao's and Allen's images, which tend toward bland anti-style, beyond some gratuitous or maudlin diffusions here and there and a rich but inconsistent saturation of color that would be more effective if the sets and clothes, even at their zestiest, didn't feel like such rote reprises from this idling auteur.

Allen has not ventured into new territory for several films now, and he hasn't really knocked a picture out of the park since 1992's shattering Husbands and Wives. Still, Sweet and Lowdown might at least have nestled into the inconsequential but essentially harmless mid-90s mold of, say, Mighty Aphrodite or Deconstructing Harry if the movie's own characters, Emmet excluded, did not feel like such afterthoughts. Or, in some cases non-thoughts. Uma Thurman's prominent billing implies much more screen time and narrative import than she receives as Blanche, a glamour girl who meets and marries Penn about an hour into the film. Out of what seems like perverse or bemused fascination, she's more willing than most of Emmet's lovers or pick-ups to participate in his favorite pastimes: shooting rats in the local dump or watching trains shoot by along lines of track secluded in the forest. Nevertheless, Blanche has as tough a time as anyone convincing Emmet of the value of emotional release—a skill at which Thurman herself, frankly, has shown no extraordinary facility, here or elsewhere.

Anthony LaPaglia gets even less to do than Thurman does as Blanche's extra-marital squeeze, and James Urbaniak, so original and disquieting a presence in Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, is reduced to such a non-entity as Penn's primary onstage accompanist that I left the theater without any certainty that his character had a name. Emmet, of course, is so elaborately self-absorbed that he takes no notice of his colleagues, and perhaps the film's structure as an attempted recovery of Emmet's forgotten biography leaves little room for attending to figures such as those played by LaPaglia and Urbaniak. Nonetheless, in giving such short shrift to his actors and their characters, Allen seems infected by his protagonist's myopia.

If we needed any further evidence that neither Emmet nor his creator has any patience for the rest of humanity, we have Hattie, the laundress and love-interest played by Morton to render the point indisputable. Emmet meets Hattie on a boardwalk while strolling with a friend in search of a casual double-date. When Emmet and his pal meet two eligible-looking women, he is instantly dismayed not only to lose a coin-toss and wind up with Hattie, "the short one" of the pair, but also to discover that she has been mute since a virulent childhood illness. Emmet, who more than anything wants a fountain of praise in a woman's body, commending both his artistic and sexual prowess at all hours, cannot envision a less compatible partner. He soon realizes that Hattie at least bears the advantage of never interrupting his long solilioquies of anger, pettiness, and self-congratulation.

Again, however, it is not just Emmet but Allen, too, who demonstrates cruelty in his treatment of Hattie. When Emmet is not with her—and given the outrageous coarseness with which he speaks to and interprets her, it is inexplicable why she allows the relationship to develop—the activity in which we most often perceive Hattie is the ceaseless, day-long consumption of desserts. Allen has conceived the character as unmitigated Appetite, swallowing down chocolate sundaes and misogynist ill-treatment with the same sweetness of temper. Morton does her best to deepen and dignify this offensive character concept but it inevitably rankles any viewer who rejects the essential crassness of the part. Beyond the lingering glow of Allen's past triumphs, what Morton responded to in this role is hard to suss out, as are the reasons for the lavish adulation she has received for her work. Hattie is an impossible character to believe in, likable only for the sentimental cuteness with which actress and director flailingly attempt to redeem her.

The night before I saw Sweet and Lowdown, I watched Allen's stellar 1989 morality parable Crimes and Misdemeanors, which spoke with frankness, imagination, and wholeness of vision about similar themes to those which are treated with so little sincerity or force in the newer film. Of course these two pictures do not aim for nearly the same tone or import, but is it futile to hope that Allen will ever produce a film of such coherence, such steadiness and rigor of purpose, such nimble blending of humor and horror? Allen ends Sweet and Lowdown with the same gesture that concluded his last two pictures: a scene of the self-flagellating artist, himself unconvinced of his enduring abilities. Even an actor as proficient as Sean Penn—whose characteristically inventive work makes the picture more interesting and tolerable than it deserves to be—cannot override a hackneyed device to which his director keeps doggedly returning. The last smattering of interviews in Sweet and Lowdown suggest that, though Emmet ultimately sank into oblivion, his last few albums demonstrated an artistry surpassing all his earlier efforts. Those testimonies are the one moment in which I had no trouble divorcing the character from his maker. If Allen wishes to be so fondly recalled, he'll have to get cracking on some fresher, richer material than this. C–


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor: Sean Penn
Best Supporting Actress: Samantha Morton

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Sean Penn
Best Supporting Actress: Samantha Morton

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