(More Woody Allen. This film review of “Sweet and Lowdown” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 July 2000.)
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman, Anthony LaPaglia, Gretchen Mol and John Waters
Almost every year since 1969, Woody Allen has written and directed a film, creating one of the most extensive bodies of work of any living American film director. With a couple of exceptions (the 1977 Oscar-winning “Annie Hall” being one), his films have not made much money. But Allen’s impact on American film-making, modern American film romance and American film comedies in particular continues unabated.
Allen’s 1999 film was “Sweet and Lowdown”, which inexplicably took almost a year to reach Australia (arriving just as his next film was being released in the USA). This film about a transient fictional jazz guitarist (Emmet Ray, played by Sean Penn) has not set the box office on fire and only lasted a few short weeks in Australian cinemas, so fans of the Woody genre had to hurry to see it. The tone of “Sweet and Lowdown” is a familiar one from Allen’s recent films: full of sly humour and a few belly-laughs, a bit romantic, a bit of action, lots of nice jazz music and a number of fractured love stories. It’s set in the 1930s, with lots of nicely evocative American scenes from the time (think “Radio Days” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo”).
The problem with “Sweet and Lowdown” is mostly in the main character of Ray: He may be talented (“second-best guitartist only to that gypsy Frenchman, Django Reinhardt”), but he is also egotistical, mean, unlikeable, a kleptomaniac, a pimp and unfaithful to some very loving women. His favourite activities (aside from jazz guitar) are playing pool, shooting rats at the “dump” and watching trains. Sean Penn (who was nominated for Best Actor Oscar for the role) does a good job, but cannot rise above the character’s basic mean-ness and breathtaking self-centredness (think “Deconstructing Harry”). Penn does, however, successfully avoid looking and sounding like Woody Allen, unlike Kenneth Branagh in the previous year’s Woody Allen film “Celebrity”.
Ray’s character is particularly set off by one of the three women who he hooks up with during the course of the film: a Harpo Marx-like Hattie (played by Samantha Morton, who also received an Academy Award nomination), a mute laundry woman with a round face. Every minute that Morton is on-screen is unforgettable; the world is reflected in her silent but deeply expressive face. This is a performance of exquisite beauty and unforgettable nuances.
Also appearing in “Sweet and Lowdown” are cult screen director John Waters, Gretchen Mol and Anthony LaPaglia as a hoodlum who steals Ray’s wife Blanche (Uma Thurman). Allen uses his pseudo-documentary style technique to good effect, and a large number of African-American characters casually appear, unusual for Allen’s generally whites-only casts. Most scenes are carefully constructed, but somehow they do not all add up, with the whole of “Sweet and Lowdown” becoming definitely less than the sum of its parts.