With Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen returns, after the scattershot vitriol of his last two films – Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity – to the kinder and gentler mode of such anecdotal reveries as Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Radio Days (1987). The movie purports to tell a series of vignettes about ‘30s jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a player considered by many, including himself, to be the second-greatest practitioner of his art, surpassed only by the legendary Django Reinhardt.
For those who aren’t jazz buffs, it will help to know that, while Django was a real person, a brilliant and innovative French gypsy guitarist, Ray is only a figment of Allen’s imagination. He’s a fictional swing guitarist, a featured soloist playing a type of vintage jazz very different from the thickly collaborative and counterpointed New Orleans kind that Allen himself plays – Ray’s is a prebop version of existential bravado, requiring the musician to sustain an improvised gracefulness.
The thing about Ray, and the point of this rather slight movie, is that while on stage he plays like an angel (the guitar solos are supplied by Howard Alden, with Penn doing some expert miming), offstage he’s an egotistical lout, a drunk and kleptomaniac, part-time pimp and tedious braggart. As played by Penn, though, he’s not entirely unlikable, coming across more like a big clueless kid than a menacing thug. Penn is a subtle actor and there’s a barely discernable trace of anxiety in Ray’s ceaseless self-regard – when he constantly tells people how great he is, it’s as though he can’t quite believe his good luck.
The story, such as it is, centers around Ray’s ill-fated relationship with his mute girlfriend Hattie, enacted by Samantha Morton with the facial expressiveness of a silent-era comedian. Ray and Hattie share a common block – neither can articulate their feelings vocally – and a common, unconditional love for Ray. He, of course, takes her devotion for granted, which means he thinks he won’t miss it when it’s gone and we, of course, know better.
Allen keeps things light this time and is less interested in explaining the enigma of the brutish creator of beauty than offering him up for our amusement – garnished lovingly with a dozen or so mellow musical excerpts.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.