movie review by
David Ng


(© 1999 Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.)

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Sweet and Lowdown
Woody Allen must have conceived his new movie Sweet and Lowdown with a single idea in mind, romantic regret, and worked backwards, fashioning a story that undetectably builds up to the emotional collapse of its hero, the fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray. Emmet's journey is charming and oftentimes clever. It also represents some of Allen's strongest filmmaking since his previous jazz-era piece, Bullets Over Broadway. Best of all, Sweet and Lowdown never announces its intentions; its moral sneaks up and surprises us with its understated simplicity.

And yet Allen is hardly breaking new ground. He has made these same observations about the human heart before, particularly in Manhattan. But Allen is always telling the same stories; it's the subtle shading that makes each iteration a pleasure. The structure of Sweet and Lowdown is also unoriginal. Allen has resurrected the faux documentary format of Zelig and married it with post-Mia whimsy. But Sweet and Lowdown doesn't reek of deja vu. It feels fresh principally because the acting never becomes self-consciously witty or intellectual or comedic. The actors find a comfortable place in between these extremes and sustain a perfect balance.

As played by Sean Penn, Emmet Ray is a lovable creep whose idea of a good time is taking his girlfriend du jour to the local dump to shoot rats. There's an innocence to Emmet's sleaziness, a kind of child-like ignorance of his own chauvinism. He's arrogant about his musical talent, but swoons at the sight of his idol, the French guitarist Django Reinhart. Sean Penn is among the best screen actors working today. His strength is his ability to play vulnerable and macho simultaneously, resulting for the first time in an Allen hero who doesn't hail from an intellectual upbringing. The change is welcome. Unlike other Woody Allen stand-ins, Penn's on-screen presence is singular enough to obliterate any memory of the nervous Jewish stereotype. Emmet Ray comes from a new place in Allen's mind, a place that is less pretentious, less self-conscious, and more instinctual.

All is well in Emmet's life until he picks up Hattie (Samantha Morton), a mute laundry girl who catches his eye. Never a guy to settle down, he hires Hattie as his assistant but soon finds himself moving in with her. Their relationship echoes the one between Allen and Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan: he the non-commital schmuck, she the wiser-beyond-her-years cherub. But now, half of the couple is silent. Samantha Morton never delves deep into her character, choosing instead to play her with silent-era goofiness. It is a restrained performance that could easily have become sentimental. But Allen smartly avoids going for the emotional cheapshots and payoffs and in so doing, gives Hattie the room she needs to earn our love and respect.

The chemistry between Penn and Morton reaches perfection when their apparently divergent personalities begin to reveal subtle similarities. They are both willful; they are stubborn; they are aggressive in their own ways. Only when it comes to emotional honesty do they differ completely. Hattie is an open book. When they first meet, she practically leaps on him, tearing off his clothes, smothering him with kisses. Emmet seldom reveals anything, insisting that he shows his emotion through his music. This fundamental disconnect will turn into a tragedy for Emmet and will ultimately be the source of his romantic regret.

The supporting cast is also strong. Uma Thurman plays Blanche, a socialite and artiste-wannabe who follows gangsters around, asking them questions such as "What do you feel when you pull the trigger?" Blanche, all artifice and smoke, is the counterpoint to Hattie. She is smitten by and eventually marries Emmet. But while Hattie's love is based on emotional generosity, Blanche's is pure egotism. How Emmet responds to the two women says a lot about what he wants and what he says he wants.

Working with a new artistic crew (save veteran production designer Santo Loquasto), Allen conceives the roaring '20s as an opium-fueled jam session. There's an Oriental flavor to everything. Zhao Fei's cinematography is truly brilliant. He lights interiors with red lanterns and obscures barrooms with silky cigarette haze. And his exteriors of upstate New York are some of the most beautiful rural camera shots since Vittorio Storaro photographed the French forests in The Conformist. Whereas the technical achievements in Zelig were the main attraction, here they are in complete support of the story and characters. Allen has synthesized his writing talent with the cinematic form, telling his story with pictures and words.

The final scene of Sweet and Lowdown is brutal. Emmet makes his painful realization, but it's a delayed reaction: he pops loose when we least expect it. His anger is completely anti-intellectual. It's raw, animal ferocity. And Allen makes it believable by having Emmet destroy what he thinks he loves most, and leaving him crumpled up, completely alone. It's a melancholy ending for a Woody Allen movie. But in a strange way, it's uplifting because for once, we can see the sad human behind the arrogant creep.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]