Monday, October 25, 2010

Sweet and Lowdown Review: A Woody Allen Modern Classic

Sweet and Lowdown doesn’t come across immediately as a very typical Woody Allen film. Sure it’s set in the late 1930s, a time period visited by Allen on more than one occasion. The subject matter is early jazz guitar and anyone familiar with his work and extracurricular activities knows he’s a real jazz aficionado. And of course the visual style is all Woody with wide shots that slowly zoom in on a subject and the writing is unmistakably his.

At first glance there seems to be something distinctly Allen-esque missing. Looking a bit deeper reveals a whiny central character (if not exactly playing the Woody Allen archetype) caught firmly between self-loathing and egotism. Sean Penn plays Emmet Ray, a virtuoso guitar player second only to the great Django Reinhardt (as Emmet never tires of telling everyone he meets). The effects of love and relationships on a tortured genius, and vice versa, have long been another staple character in Allen’s films. How can a genius writer, artist, musician also have room in his life for a companion? Does he have anything left to give after pouring forth everything his soul has to offer into his work?

The premise of the film presents an interesting idea. If Django Reinhardt is the best and, for the most part, only known gypsy jazz guitar player from the pre-war period, then it begs the question, “Who was number 2?” And here we have the answer, albeit a fantasy created by Allen. It is structured like a documentary with various talking heads, including Allen himself and other jazz historians and enthusiasts, talking about Emmet Ray as if he were a real person. The effect is that it gives this farcical history an air of authenticity. It also allows some of the episodes and situations to be played as outlandish, pushing the boundaries of what an audience might accept, because we’re not exactly witnessing events as much as we are hearing third-hand accounts of them.

I’ve mentioned that Emmet is both an egotist and that he is self-loathing. He is aware of neither quality. He proudly boasts of being the greatest guitar player in the world, “except for this Gypsy in Europe.” He idolizes Django and is frozen in trepidation in his presence. The story goes that Emmet had the chance to meet Django in Europe – twice. But he fainted – twice. Emmet believes so strongly in his greatness that he’s willing to sacrifice every relationship in his life plus every dime in his wallet, being so convinced that the “greatest” at anything shouldn’t have to think about money. The fainting may be from Emmet’s inability to accept that he will never be as good as Django. He can’t let that fact go and it haunts him, always affecting his performance. Perhaps it’s even the reason why night after night the club owners wait for him to show up and if he does, he’s either late or drunk.

What are we to think of a man who is so clueless about other people that he thinks it’s perfectly reasonable to spend time shooting rats at the dump or watching freight trains roll past? In some ways Emmet may be even more of a naïf than Hattie (Samantha Morton), the young woman whom he meets in New Jersey while on the road and brings along with him as his lover and companion for about a year. Somehow improbably she’s completely enamored of him. Maybe it’s because she’s mute and he does enough speaking for the both of them.

Emmet is incapable of admitting he’s in love with Hattie and eventually he drops her just as quickly as he picked her up. Shorlty after he falls into a marriage with Blanche (Uma Thurman), a woman who seems more in love with literary romanticism than with the man. She feebly attempts to ascribe some kind of Freudian explanation to his fascination with trains. Her description of the locomotive as a symbol of sexual prowess leads Emmet to remark, “It sounds like you want to go to bed with the train.” Later Blanche is chasing after a gunman who works for the mob (Anthony Lapaglia). What a field day she could have with the Freudian analysis there.

Penn and Morton, both Oscar nominated for their roles, are really fantastic. Penn’s performance is somewhat mannered, but he exhibits a gift for comedy unseen since his Jeff Spicoli days. And with the benefit of hindsight there may be something of Harvey Milk here too (or the other way round, I suppose). Morton was a virtual unknown before this and this was her breakout role. Her performance calls to mind Harpo Marx in her befuddled facial expressions and expressive eyes. On the other hand Uma Thurman may have been a poor casting choice. Her performance is too mannered. It’s very unusual given Allen’s track record of directing excellent female performances. It looks like they were trying to achieve something specific in her character as if she’s a woman who is trying to fit a specific role, but the unfortunate result is a bit grating.

One final note I feel compelled to mention is that Penn spent a great deal of time studying jazz guitar and learning to play the instrument so he could look convincing on the screen. I recall this being one of the big selling points in the stumping for the film in 1999. But the fact is that Penn looks like a real guitar player on the screen, what he’s doing with the instrument is not even close to what we hear on the soundtrack, which is nearly all performed by Howard Alden. I am not a guitar player, although I was a musician in high school, and it was obviously phony to me. I saw the film in the cinema with a good friend who is a virtuoso guitar player. For him it was a major distraction. However, the majority of viewers would likely not notice. For what it’s worth, this is the only real disappointment in a treasure of a Woody Allen film.

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