Sweet and Lowdown
Directed by Allen. Starring John Waters, Gretchen Mol, Anthony Lapaglia, Uma Thurman, Samantha Morton, Sean Penn. (1999, PG-13, 95 min.)
REVIEWED By Sarah Hepola, Fri., Feb. 4, 2000
If there is any justice in the world, this engaging, embraceable tale of one man's romance with jazz and women will at long last snuff all the speculation that Allen, now 65 and having weathered over three decades in the business, has supplanted the sophisticated, literate comedies of his youth in favor of blowjob-and-toilet jokes. Allen himself is famously jazz-obsessed and a masterful clarinet player in his own right, and here he has enlisted the help of other jazz authorities, like Nat Hentoff, to recount through mock interviews the story of Emmet Ray, a fictional jazz musician plagued by his dubious distinction as the second best guitarist of his time, whose pursuits of fame, women, and booze grandly coalesce here. As portrayed by Sean Penn, Ray is a lovable antihero, a weasel stuffed in ill-fitting suits, whose idea of fun is getting likkered up and shootin' rats at the local junkyard. And yet, when Ray's fingers caress those six strings, women swoon, among them a sweet, mute laundress named Hattie. In a moving performance by British actress Samantha Morton, Hattie is one of the classic Allen heroines, like Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan or Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, whose delicate, unsophisticated demeanor mask the knowing old soul within. But while she is the heart of Ray's rollicking tale, she is not his only romance. There is also Blanche, a child of privilege slumming it in search of inspiration for her latest novel, played with uncharacteristic ease by a luminous Thurman. And then there are the nameless, fly-by-night girlfriends, all of whom badger Ray to get in touch with his emotions, to let his feelings seep into the music he plays. In another, earlier Allen movie, that female complaint might be met head-on with a cascade of male excuses and neuroses. But here, Ray is too simple, too ill-equipped for such self-awareness. In touch with his emotions? Let it out in his music? He just plays the guitar, thanks. Despite his occasional bad behavior, it's hard not to like the guy as he does things like building an extravagant crescent moon set-piece to trademark his entrance only to end up botching the whole thing utterly. Once again, Allen has coaxed sure-footed performances from his cast, and in its warm, broad characterizations, Sweet and Lowdown resembles Allen's 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway, whose charming goofs on another artistic pursuit -- dramaturgy -- were interwoven with the film's ongoing discussion of a writer's integrity. Here, Allen returns to the slick, smoky world of gangsters, call girls, and lighthearted caper -- adding plenty of wonderful, toe-tapping jazz -- but this is also a love story tainted with sadness, which asks how a musician can balance the love in his life with the love of his life. Naysayers be damned, Allen's latest is a literate, sophisticated comedy whose humor and loss and hope linger in our hearts, like the jazz music it reveres, both sweet and lowdown.