Sweet and Lowdown

A Moribund Script

Peter Brunette

It wants to be charming as all get-out, but I'm afraid the latest annual product from the Woody Allen assembly-line, Sweet and Lowdown, is a dud. Neither sweet nor low-down enough by half, unfortunately, this faux documentary about a 1930's jazz guitarist named Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) is way too pleased with itself yet rarely funny. It must be said, though, that the very lame script is partially redeemed by Sean Penn's startling re-creation of his character and the other fine acting that supports him.

The film opens in the present-day with Woody and some other talking heads reminiscing about the great jazzman, Emmet Ray, who, though an angel with his guitar, was a devil with women and booze. Besides being a kleptomaniac (he steals an ashtray from the home of a black friend after an all-night jam session), he's so droningly egocentric as to be nearly dysfunctional. He also has an obsession about being only the second-best jazz guitarist in the world, behind a French gypsy named Django Reinhardt (an actual historical figure), a shtick that becomes a running (okay, walking) gag through the whole film. One day on the boardwalk, Emmet meets a young woman named Hattie (Samantha Morton), who's mute, and thus a perfect foil for his blathering nonstop self-congratulation. Unfortunately for her, she falls in love with this lout, who takes her to watch trains and shoot rats in the dump, his favorite pastimes. Marriage and abandonment follow, and Uma Thurman -- who, it must be admitted, looks great in the period costumes -- shows up later as a femme fatale named Blanche, who cheats on Emmet and gets him, to the great detriment of his health, involved with the Mob.

In Sweet and Lowdown, Allen demonstrates clearly that he's running out of creative gas. The basic characters, once established, never seem to go anywhere interesting, and the dialogue is flat, flat, flat. The faux-documentary frame, which wants to be so playful, never really works. And, perhaps on the example of Barbara Kopple's loving documentary on Allen, Wild Man Blues, Sweet and Lowdown is stuffed to the gills with '30s jazz music played in sets that we have to sit through. I have nothing against this music, but it's just not what I go to the movies for. I've got a CD player for that.

The only reason to see this film is for the acting, which at times is downright astonishing. Sean Penn inhabits his role as the amoral, megalomaniacal musician with an uncanny fit that seems total. Though some may feel that the role's not all that much of a stretch for Penn, he gets those little gestures (the cigarette in the mouth, the flick of the head) exactly right. Samantha Morton (who was outstanding in Carine Adler's little-seen Under the Skin) plays the mute Hattie with a stunted expressiveness that's almost heartbreaking, and one that brings out the best in Penn (as an actor, if not as a character) as he obsessively fills the void of her silence. John Waters has a small role that perks things up just when the script feels like it's going to wind down and stop dead. And Uma and those costumes... But all of these fine people acting their little hearts out, I'm afraid, can't overcome the inertia of Allen's moribund script.