Sweet and Lowdown

It's undoubtedly not what he intends, but Woody Allen is becoming the McDonald's of American filmmakers. He makes the same burger and fries every single year; we all know exactly what to expect, and no one is ever surprised. If you like those burgers, you'll go; if you don't, you won't. Either way, no one is ever very nervous that they'll be getting (or missing) something they didn't anticipate. You have to decide for yourself if you are as sick as I am of the same nervous-nebbish jokes; the raft of notable guest stars, each appearing for seconds and having nothing to do; the abuse of poor Judy Davis; and the way nearly everyone in his films ends up reading their lines just like Allen himself. How Allen has maintained a reputation as a serious auteur is a mystery. The attraction of his films, minimal as that is, has more to do with safety and comfort than risk or genuine achievement.

As Woody burgers go, Sweet and Lowdown is charming and winsomely nostalgic, and in fact less plagued by Allen's habitual tropes than any of his films since Zelig. He seems to be trying to resist his worst habits after the abjectly painful experience of Celebrity, but don't take that to mean slipper-like coziness isn't still his main objective. The biggest difference here is the presence of Sean Penn. For the first time perhaps ever, Allen has cast an incomparable actor as his lead, and invented for him a distinctive, distinctly un-Woodian character: sleazy, drunken, egomaniac jazz guitarist Emmett Ray, a prototype of the talented performing artist who could have been great if he had ever gotten out of his own way.

Ray is, of course, fictional, but he represents a common '30s type, and Allen provides enough cultural ballast to keep the ball in the air. The movie is cast in the light mode of Broadway Danny Rose and Radio Days, as a vignette-ish memoir told from a present-day perspective about fictional showbiz figures. Allen's structure often seems arbitrary, but Penn is something else: Ray is a dynamic loser considered by many (but especially himself) to be only the best jazz guitarist after Gypsy legend Django Reinhardt (whose playing graces the soundtrack). Penn goes crazy filling in this lovable cretin's every tic and flaw with juice. Allen is using Ray to riff about how brilliant artists can be, and often are, reprehensible vermin. It's not an original concept, but many of the running gags (fainting in meetings with Django, shooting rats at the dump) are funny in a forgettable, soufflé-like way. Still, Allen never expands his ideas into real narratives or feeling — joke riffs are all he's after.

Ray eventually finds, for him, the ideal woman: a mute (Samantha Morton), which allows for some nice silent-screen referencing (though not for any depth or risk). Sweet and Lowdown is a vapor trail of a comedy, comfortable as an old chair (and deliciously photographed in shades of melon and banana by Chinese vet Zhao Fei), but ultimately quaint and unchallenging. All that distinguishes it is Penn, who might be the most imaginative and dangerous actor in America. Here he launches into a stylized, all-pistons-firing character assassination like he did in The Falcon and the Snowman and Carlito's Way, and it's a genuine pleasure to watch.

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