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and Lowdown (1999)
Woody Allen puts himself into his movies. Sometimes he
plays the lead and enacts one alter ego or another, never himself in a literal sense, but
so much of himself engrained into his characters that it can be difficult to know where
the fictional character starts, where the real Woody ends. (Sometimes he has another actor
do the job, most recently Kenneth Branagh in last year's Celebrity.)
of the Woody Allen we know well from decades of press coverage come into play repeatedly -
Allen the auteur, the artist; Allen the musician; Allen the husband; Allen the lover. And
then there is the personality - the insecure overachiever, the New York-Jewish ironist,
the self-deprecating egoist. Complex, contradictory, and very, very funny.
Sweet and Lowdown is
Allen's latest in what has become an annual gift-giving ritual for his fans; it wouldn't
seem like Christmas without a new release from Woody as part of the holiday festivities.
The hero is Emmet Ray (a terrific performance by Sean Penn), a fictional jazz guitarist
from the 1930's, here given mocumentary treatment by Allen, complete with talking heads,
speakers knowledgeable about jazz who relate bits of the history, deadpanning as if they
were talking about, say, Duke Ellington on a PBS special.
Ray, as the story
goes, was a great musician, second only to the great Django Reinhardt, whose music is
heard in some of the cuts on the soundtrack, a soundtrack which (along with Buena Vista Social Club) is one of the year's most
delicious toe-tapping pleasures. The "second only" position is repeatedly
alluded to throughout the film. Being number two allows Ray to have an idol, a peak of
accomplishment to admire and stretch for, but it also means he isn't number one. (Allen,
of course, is known to admire the great European film makers - Bergman, Fellini. Whether
his cumulative accomplishment in films ranks with their's is one of his issues.) The
running joke is that when Ray actually sees Reinhardt, he faints - which can be
interpreted both as overwhelming emotion at the prospect of meeting the idol, as well as
avoidance of knowing the idol, who almost surely would not match Ray's fantasy.
Ray, too, is a
kleptomaniac, a pimp, and a drunk whose pleasures are shooting rats in the town dump and
watching trains go by. He shares those pleasures with the women he meets from whom he will
take his pleasure and move on. Ray's emotional availability or lack thereof, is entwined
with his artistry in a complicated way and that becomes a central theme of Sweet and
He picks up a girl,
Hattie (Samantha Morton), on the Atlantic City boardwalk (he gets her instead of her
friend because he loses the toss of a coin). She is a mute and the parallel to the great
Giulietta Masina cannot be accidental from Woody Allen. In a beautifully wrought scene,
Ray, sprawled in bed in post-coital relaxation, plays his guitar; the camera slowly zooms
in on Hattie. She is transported by his music and falls in love.
betrays her love and moves on to other women. He marries beautiful Uma Thurman who treats
him like the subject of a psychological treatise. The ins and outs of Ray's emotional life
and that of his art are not separable and the tale wends its way to a telling conclusion.
excellent performances and memorable music, the production is lush in 1930's costuming,
the rich colors illuminated by the handsome cinematography of Zhao Fei (Raise the Red
The bubbly lightness
of the music and the giddy fun of Allen's humor give Sweet and Lowdown the gloss of
light comedy. As with the very best of comedy, though, it explores some real and complex
issues. From Woody Allen we expect no less.
- Arthur Lazere