LOOKING LIKE peaches and cream with a dime-store glass of pale gold brandy on the side, Woody Allen's latest is the prettiest movie of the year, maybe of his career. Zhao Fei's cinematography and Santo Loquasto's production design evoke an early swing era that's both glowing and faded. The film also has a great jazz score, a bunch of funny lines, a fabulous running gag, and a spectacular performance by Sean Penn that's like watching someone doing back flips on a high wire with only a worn-out safety net below him.
SWEET AND LOWDOWN
written and directed by Woody Allen
with Sean Penn and Uma Thurman
opens December 22 at Guild 45th
The net is the film itself, basically a series of anecdotes knotted together in the shape of a biopic about Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a little-known '30s jazz guitarist who is, in fact, a fiction. The there-is-no-there-there effect is quite deliberate. It's what you could call a formal tendency that runs through Allen's entire career, but which he puts aside in his best films.
Here, Allen has attempted to make the equivalent of an album of music, where each scene is like a separate track. With an LP as model, he can have soaring moments without worrying too much about how to hold the thing together. Like an anti-Reds, scenes from Ray's career are introduced by experts who testify about the life and work of an imaginary person who defines the world as himself and his music. He's the apolitical artist par excellence. (The film is also a wish-fulfillment fantasy about the kind of artist Allen could be if he were not a celebrity.)
Penn's performance is a hair's breadth away from caricature, yet has to be seen to be believed. He reveals the insecurities and delusions of grandeur of a pathological narcissist who has no idea what figure he cuts in the world; and yet when he plays music, he's some sort of hopped-up, blissed-out deity.
Sweet and Lowdown combines the talking-jag rhythms of '30s comedies with the physical humor of the silent era. The Chaplinesque Ray's main squeeze is a mute laundress; the talented British actress Samantha Morton plays her like a cross between Harpo Marx and Mary Pickford. Though Morton never cloys, this character is a blatant embodiment of Allen's misogyny. (She's beautiful, she's adoring, she can't talk back.) Uma Thurman fares worse as a femme fatale whose vanity matches Emmet's own, and the huge supporting cast is indistinguishable from the furniture. Sweet and Lowdown is too slight to accommodate more than one ego—a larger-than-life model of the filmmaker's own.