Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman
Directed by Woody Allen
Writing credits: Woody Allen
Sony Pictures Classics * 95 minutes
As Woody Allen has become angrier and angrier over the last fifteen years, particularly at the women in his life, he has focused each of his films into either of his two passions: feeling sorry for himself, or 1930's culture, particularly pre-swing jazz. When he insists on indulging the first of these passions, such as in DECONSTRUCTING HARRY, in which he plays himself yet again, and CELEBRITY, in which Kenneth Branagh has the misfortune to have to channel his persona, we are left with a sense of "Enough already!", and wish he would just go away and brood without bothering us any further. Yet when he travels backwards in time to the 1930's, infusing his films with the music he so obviously loves, the expression "neurotic genius" emphasizes the latter, rather than the former.
PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, as disturbing a film as has been made in a generation, deftly balances the comic and the tragic. His next real triumph was BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, a wonderfully witty, yet cynical, exploration of the trials and tribulations of a young, of course neurotic playwright, deftly interpreted by John Cusack who successfully sublimates the more obnoxious parts of the Allen Persona.
In SWEET AND LOWDOWN, Allen reverts to the melancholy tone of CAIRO in his exploration of the life and psyche of Emmet Ray, a fictional jazz guitarist of the 1930's, and the second greatest guitarist in the world, exceeded only by the great Django Reinhardt. Like many jazz musicians of the time, Ray is somewhat less than a swell fellow. He pimps, he pool sharks, he gambles, he drinks too much, he's unreliable, and he's horrible to women. But when he goes out onto a stage and picks up a guitar, he's magic, and people respond accordingly.
Emmet Ray is brought to fascinating life by Sean Penn. This actor's weaselly face is perfect for this sleazy character, who still has a romantic enough soul to envision himself being lowered to the stage seated with his guitar on a huge crescent moon. Yet for all that Emmet Ray has talent, and Penn portrays him with an affectionate derision, he is still the Woody Allen alter-ego, and his treatment of women is abominable.
One of those women is Hattie, a mute launderess who becomes Emmet's lover. He treats her horribly, but she adores him. British actress Samantha Morton, whose raw wound of a performance in 1997's UNDER THE SKIN put her on the cinematic map as a force to be reckoned with, singlehandedly revives the fragile flowers portrayed so effectively in silent films by Lillian Gish. Without speaking a word, she embodies Harry Langdon's helpless naïf. Yet for all that she allows Emmet to treat her as a doormat, she ultimately demonstrates the greater strength, and arguably has the last laugh. Like her "sad clown" silent film inspirations (Langdon, Chaplin, Buster Keaton), she also has a scene in which she demonstrates a feel for Mack Sennett-style physical comedy. It's a breathtaking performance that shows just how much character can be portrayed without words in the hands of a skillful artist. Yet it is also a profoundly disturbing characterization, which bears no small resemblance to Mia Farrow's similarly sad waif Cecelia in PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO. However, in the aftermath of Allen's notorious split with Farrow, he has chosen to literally take away the voice of what is essentially "the Mia Farrow Role," rendering her mute.
The other woman, who treats Emmet so badly that of course he falls madly in love with her, is writer Blanche, played as a Marlene Dietrich clone. She regards Emmet as mere copy fodder, and of course, ditches him for a more intriguing "artist," this time a gangster well-played by Anthony LaPaglia. Thurman looks great as always, which is fortunate, as the woman simply can't act.
As with all of Allen's 1930's-themed films, this one looks great. Filmed in color with a vague sepia wash, the costumes, cars, and of course the music, are terrific. Whatever his faults, Allen is at least partially redeemed by his genuine reverence for early jazz, and it's when he uses it as a backdrop, he does his best work. Virtuoso guitarist Howard Alden handles the Emmet Ray guitar segments, but Penn mimics a real guitar player admirably, and the effect is flawless. And of course, any movie that features Viper Mad, by Sidney Bechet with Noble Sissle's Swingsters, can't be all bad.
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