Directed By Woody Allen
Sony Pictures Classics
By: Eric G.
The best thing about Woody Allen is that he doesn't adhere to Hollywood conventionality, and he never has. He makes movies that interest him first, and, if they so happen to please audiences, then that's just a bonus. Sweet And Lowdown is another example of Allen's uncompromising quest to seek out his interests and obsessions, and he tells it with patented Woody Allen neuroticism.
Sean Penn adds yet another brilliant character to his oeuvre as Emmet Ray in the story of an obscure Depression-era jazz guitarist, whose genius exists only in his talent. He's a despicable human being, who just happens to be the (self-proclaimed) second greatest guitar player in the world. Allen deconstructs our perception of genius, showing the flawed man versus the virtuoso performer. Penn adopts a tone of voice he has never used in film before and completely immerses himself in this brutish, amoral character.
Samantha Morton plays Emmet Ray's mute and half-witted girlfriend with such pathos and clarity that she could have easily flourished in D.W. Griffith's era of silent films. Ray and a buddy flip a coin over two girls on a carnival pier, and Ray gets Hattie- the mute. At first Ray is upset that he got stuck with a 'dimwit', but he quickly becomes accustomed to her childlike attentiveness and awe. Hattie doesn't seem to mind his callous insults and selfish behavior, and their relationship, although doomed from the start, is no less poignant.
Critics have deemed Allen's recent output of films as bitter and obdurate portrayals of his fellow man, but Allen's merely been flexing his artistic muscles. Deconstructing Harry was pretty dark for a Woody Allen film, but he never loses his sense of humor no matter how far he pushes the envelope. Celebrity may have been cynical to some degree, but it brilliantly captured the stuff of mid-life crises. Allen is a consummate filmmaker, whose style and penchant for realistic dialogue is unmatched.
Usually, if Allen doesn't star in his films he has someone else play an obvious extension of himself, but Sweet And Lowdown, despite consulting Allen in documentary style asides, focuses on someone else's faults for a change. The story is presented as hearsay and the stuff of legend because Emmet Ray never really attained star status (he is a fictional character), so embellishment and exaggeration blur the details of his real life in the film. Allen presents it all in a careful juxtaposition of absurdity and insight.
Sweet And Lowdown, like all Woody Allen films, seeks out redemption of some sort, but Allen always bathes it in the trivialities of daily life. In Emmet Ray, Allen has a character whose flaws far outweigh his talents. Ray used his talent as an excuse to behave like a monster, but when the macho façade broke down Ray was left empty and broken- his talent meaningless without someone to appreciate it, and Allen proffers this lesson with grace and sympathy.