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Sweet And Lowdown

06 Apr 2002

When I was in high school, I read the scripts for every Woody Allen film I could get my hands on. At the time, that amounted to Four Films By Woody Allen which has "Annie Hall", "Interiors," "Manhattan," and "Stardust Memories." Fabulous films (mostly). I think the best was yet to come -- "Zelig," "Hanna and Her Sisters", and "Crimes and Misdemeanors," followed in the coming years, the last of these being perhaps his finest work.

And so it is that ever since then, when he finishes a new film, I'm always eager to see it. What will he do this time? But as the years have passed, I think the Wood Man's films have become more and more slight. Maybe he's taking his cue from the aliens in "Stardust Memories" who advise him that if he wants to do a service to mankind, that he should make funnier movies. Though maybe he's interpreted "funny" to mean "light". Nothing since "Crimes" carries the same weight; it's just 87 minutes of entertainment which is quickly replaced by whatever was on television last night.

In his previous film, "Celebrity," Allen started to recycle material from his earlier films, a practice common to classical composers and authors. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but the fact that I even mention it probably means that it is. So I was really hoping for something fresh and original in his most recent film, "Sweet and Lowdown." He delivers, somewhat. Sean Penn plays Emmett Ray, a guitar player from the 1930's whose claim to fame is that he is the second greatest jazz guitar player in the world. He likes watching trains and shooting rats down at the dump when he's not boozing and whoring. Samantha Morton is his mute girlfriend. She idolizes him for his playing and puts up with the rest. After a while, Ray leaves her, meets someone else, gets married, and involves himself in one petty distraction after the next (more rats and trains).

His story is presented as a documentary, with bits of his life introduced by jazz pundits, including Allen himself, but did Emmett ever really exist? Not obviously. I'm sure why I'm asking that question -- had this material come from any other filmmaker, I would say "no" in a heartbeat, but from Woody, a jazz man, I have to think twice.

So what do I think? Is there a bottom line to all this exposition? Yeah. The film was OK... but not great. It looked good. And the music was certainly quite nice. But a number of things bothered me. It bugged me that when playing guitar, Sean Penn's hands didn't come too close to matching the music we were hearing. That was surprising in light of the meticulous detail that went into every other aspect of the film (production design especially, and Penn's otherwise very good performance.)

And then there was the matter of character. This film is largely character study. There are no car chases, nothing explodes. So the movie should spend a lot of time getting into the heads of its characters, right? That would have been nice, but I don't think it happened. I don't know why Ray likes to shoot rats down at the dump. No clue. And on this point, I'm unwilling to blame Penn, but rather point the finger of blame to the writing. Just take a look at "Hurlyburly" for comparison (another Sean Penn film from about '98). Watching it is like spending 2 solid days with Penn's character, and while you might not like him, at least you have begun to understand him. In "Sweet and Lowdown," I couldn't tell if there was anything to understand. Ray almost comes across as a force of nature, and it's all Penn can do to put a face on it.

Samantha Morton is fine as Hattie, Ray's girlfriend, but the part is absolutely maddening to watch. Why does she stay with Ray? I have no idea. Occasionally, she scribbles notes for him, but he can barely read them. He doesn't know what's going on inside her head, and neither do I.

As for The Insider, her review was similar to mine, though I suspect her thoughts were influenced by her bitter disappointment at not winning any of the prizes up for grabs at the screening.

Related Sites

"Sweet and Lowdown" on IMDB