Turning Back the Clock

Woody Allen revisits the golden age of jazz, as well as his own best days as a director, with the witty and wistful 'Sweet and Lowdown.'

January 21, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Woody Allen returns to his roots in "Sweet and Lowdown," a gentle comedy set in the Jazz Age that avoids the dyspepsia and hysterically pitched self-pity of his most recent movies and hearkens back to the tender, observant humor that made Allen such a beloved figure in the American cinema.

Sean Penn plays Emmet Ray, a brilliant jazz guitarist (second only to Django Reinhardt) who supports himself as a pimp (he prefers the term "manager"), whose idea of a night out is shooting rats in the dump, and who has a self-destructive knack for getting himself fired just when he's hitting his stride.

"Sweet and Lowdown" is structured as a documentary, with talking heads intercutting the action to explain the fictional Ray's significance in the jazz canon (Nat Hentoff and Allen himself show up in these roles), and the audience soon learns that one of Emmet's most memorable traits was his habit of fainting whenever Reinhardt showed up, thereby robbing himself of the chance to jam with and perhaps surpass the Gypsy master.

In many ways, "Sweet and Lowdown" is a sad, sympathetic portrait of the perpetual salutatorian, who will always come in second despite his inborn talent and sweetness of heart. Emmet stumbles as much around women as he does with Reinhardt, treating them with a combination of callous contempt and puppy-like vulnerability. When he takes up with a mute laundress named Hattie (Samantha Morton), he's cruel at first but soon we see that her adoration is the perfect foil for his own self-loathing bluster.

(In Hattie -- affectingly played by Morton, who expresses worlds of pain and love with those eyes and marvelously balletic neck movements -- Allen has also found the perfect proxy for an audience he has always held at an ambivalent distance, if not in outright contempt.)

"Sweet and Lowdown" follows Emmet's relationship with Hattie, his peripatetic life from road house to rib joint and his acquaintance with Blanche (Uma Thurman), a rich dilettante who smokes opium and thinks Emmet's penchant for rat-hunting is terribly exotic.

But the plot is nothing compared to the film's vivid set pieces, from a touching scene depicting the guitarist's misguided attempt to enter a stage on an enormous paper moon, to after-hours jam sessions that convey the sweaty thrill of improvisation. (The movie has been spectacularly filmed by the Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei, who makes the color red almost another character in this wonderfully textured production.)

The center of all of this, of course, is Emmet, whom Penn plays with a besotted, ecstatic charm in his too-tight suits and goofy mustache. Although his fingering doesn't always seem to match up with Howard Alden's mellifluous ghost-playing, Penn is clearly actor enough to capture the persona of the ultimate cat, a complicated, demon-riven man whose only moments of clarity come when he's playing.

It's a lovely, soulful performance in a movie that manages to imbue tragedy with just the right grace note of insouciance -- a movie worthy of Woody Allen himself.

`Sweet and Lowdown'

Starring Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman

Directed by Woody Allen

Rated PG-13 (sexual content and some substance abuse)

Running time 95 minutes

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Sun score ***1/2

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