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Friday, March 9, 2001


Dirty, rotten, brilliant scoundrel

Woody Allen's films tend to be best when he manages to get beyond himself, which isn't often these days. But if there's one thing Woody loves more than a part in which he lands a younger leading lady, it's jazz. "Sweet and Lowdown," Allen's latest film, is a semifictional paean to guitarist Emmet Ray, a jazz almost-great who faded into the shadow of the king of gypsy-jazz, Django Reinhardt.

Sean Penn in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown"

Or so I thought. It turns out that "Emmet Ray" is a creation of Allen's, and the many contemporary jazz historians and critics (like Nat Hentoff) who comment on Ray's life and career in the film are in on the joke. But anyone familiar with the rough-and-tumble early days of jazz (before it became enshrined in the sterile cocoon of cultural respectability) will have no problem recognizing the sort of larger-than-life characters that inspired Emmet Ray -- wild men who put as much energy into wine, women and weed as they did into their music.

Set in the 1930s in Chicago nightclubs, on New Jersey boardwalks and in Hollywood back lots (all re-created with a great love of period detail), "Sweet and Lowdown" takes an anecdotal approach to Ray's career, maintaining the illusion that much has been lost to time and all that remains are the legends, sometimes with several versions of what actually happened (like when Ray discovers his wife having an affair with a Mafia hit man).

Emmet Ray (played by Sean Penn) is a musician with neuroses so massive they could only have been scripted by Woody Allen. While arrogantly convinced he's the world's greatest guitarist, and willing to announce that fact to anybody, he's also in deathly fear of Django, who he knows -- deep down inside -- is better.

Penn is best at playing macho, boorish males with just enough sense to realize their own shortcomings (think "Hurlyburly"), and that's exactly what he is here. He plays Ray as a maelstrom of a man blowing through life in unthinking thrall to his urges. But he brings some pathos, too: Ray is a comic figure, with his twirly mustache, garish fashion sense and ludicrously bloated (and fragile) ego. So convinced is he of his genius and allure as a musician, Ray fails to see what a jerk he is to all the women who fall for him. As far as he's concerned, they're there for sex and pimping and to listen to him blather on.

This hits an extreme when he falls for Hattie (Samantha Morton, "Under the Skin"), a forlorn little laundress with a goofy grin. Emmet thinks he's doing the girl a favor by taking her under his wing, but really, she's the only one who'll put up with his raging ego, and then only because she hears something more pensive and beautiful emerge when he picks up his instrument and plays.

Somehow, in those moments on stage, Ray does transcend himself, and Penn captures this perfectly: His eyes shut, a grin spreads and -- in a move that shows how closely he studied jazz musicians -- his eyebrows arch with each bend of a string, his face serene with delight, or slack with surprise at the music emerging from his fingers.

Morton is even better. Since her character is mute, this lets her be a perfect foil for the motormouth Emmet, and also to act in an irresistibly emotive style that recalls silent-era actresses like Lillian Gish (thus further adding to the period feel). Uma Thurman also brings her femme fatale slink to the role of Blanche, a debutante who becomes Emmet's wife after he inexplicably dumps Hattie. But her role as a rich-kid writer "slumming" in the world of musicians and other lowlifes is poorly written, with satire that barely elicits a laugh. ("Tell me what it feels like to kill someone," she earnestly asks a gangster.)

Allen mostly plays the story for laughs, but the demons that drive great art are never far from the surface: arrogance and insecurity, love and loneliness, fame and poverty. Take the bit where Emmet carefully constructs a crescent moon prop, upon which he wants to be lowered onto the stage. In a very silly scene, the wobbly contraption almost breaks his neck. But when he burns it after the show, there's no humor to be found. "All your dreams go up in smoke sooner or later," snarls the morose guitarist, in a moment of angst that underlines his reckless live-for-the-moment philosophy.

Look hard enough here and you can sense Woody's agenda probing the floorboards, his id trying to break through like one of those zombies in "Evil Dead." Since his acrimonious and very public breakup with Mia Farrow a few years back -- in which he took up with Farrow's adopted teenage daughter Soon-Yi -- Woody has been waging an equally public defense of his reputation, which has extended into his films. In "Sweet and Lowdown," you can almost hear Woody saying: Look at Emmet Ray, he was a thief, a womanizer, a manic-depressive egomaniac, but hey, he was still a genius!

Great art may trump personal failings, but many who have experienced an artistic tantrum close up may say otherwise. (See "Hilary and Jackie," for one.) To his credit, Allen is fair enough to leave that question to the viewer to consider, as Emmet Ray fades into history on a decidedly blue note. This is Allen's 30th film, and while he is perhaps an overly prolific filmmaker, "Sweet and Lowdown" will certainly take a place among his best.

"Sweet and Lowdown" (Japanese title: "Guitar Hiki no Koi") opens March 17 at Yebisu Garden Cinema.

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