Woody Allen is in a mellow mood with "Sweet and Lowdown," the fictionalized biopic of a supposedly legendary American jazz guitarist of the 1930s. Offering the filmmaker a wonderful showcase for presenting some of the great jazz standards he loves so much, pic is also a fascinating insight into a vaunting, egotistical, amoral character who justifies his actions with the fact that he's an artist and who, indeed, loves his guitar more than any human being who crosses his path.

Woody Allen is in a mellow mood with “Sweet and Lowdown,” the fictionalized biopic of a supposedly legendary American jazz guitarist of the 1930s. Offering the filmmaker a wonderful showcase for presenting some of the great jazz standards he loves so much, pic is also a fascinating insight into a vaunting, egotistical, amoral character who justifies his actions with the fact that he’s an artist and who, indeed, loves his guitar more than any human being who crosses his path. With Sean Penn in formidable form in the leading role, and beautiful turns from Samantha Morton and Uma Thurman as two contrasted women in his life, pic has an excellent chance to do solid mid-range business for Sony Classics, with the usual long life in ancillary.

An opening title declares that the film will deal with Emmet Ray, a little-known jazz guitarist who flourished briefly in the ’30s, recorded a number of standards and is considered by jazz aficionados to be second only to the great Django Reinhardt. This is the second time (after “Zelig”) that Allen has tackled a biography of a fictional character, but this is very different in mood and tone from the earlier film. Relayed as a series of (not always accurate) reminiscences by a group of real-life jazz experts led by Allen himself, pic has something of the behind-the-scenes small-time showbiz feel of “Broadway Danny Rose,” and shares an amateur talent contest sequence with that film.

Before we meet Ray he has, legend asserts, already twice met Reinhardt in Europe; on both occasions, he fainted. Yet this is the only area in which he’s at all fainthearted. Ray is a bombastic, self-centered extrovert with an ego a mile high. When we first see him, playing in Chicago and pimping for a couple of hookers on the side, he’s already blowing his own trumpet almost as effectively as he plays his guitar. A vain man who spends his money on clothes and cars, he spends his spare time playing pool, watching trains go by or — his favorite — visiting the city dump to shoot at rats with a .45. Yet, like Harpo Marx, he’s transformed when he plays; his face visibly softens as he creates the most marvelous music.

His dealings with women are shabby — he’s a self-admitted love-‘em-and-leave-‘em type who thinks he’s a great lover, but because, as he keeps insisting, he’s an artist who never plans to settle down, he won’t allow himself to fall in love. Nonetheless, he finds himself touched by Hattie (Samantha Morton), a mute, orphaned laundress he meets on the boardwalk at Atlantic City. Desperately poor, Hattie is warm and loving, easy prey for Ray’s seduction technique — and she loves his music.

At first he considers her just a “mute half-wit,” but somehow they stay together for a year, although he cheats on her without a second thought. Then, abruptly, we learn (from one of the narrators) he’s walked out on her and married Blanche (Uma Thurman), a sultry, elegant writer. It’s a mismatch from the start, and before long Ray is trailing his wife during her liaisons with gangster Al Torrio (Anthony LaPaglia). Ray realizes his mistake with Hattie, giving the film a sweetly melancholic arc.

This is a film in which the usual Allen one-liners are deliberately in short supply. There are occasional jokes and a couple of slapstick sequences (Ray making an entrance onstage precariously balanced on a specially made half-moon; a shootout at a roadside diner), but generally the mood is reflected by the film’s apt title.

One of the most amusing sequences involves a trip to Hollywood, where Ray and his band take part in the filming of a musical short, a rendition of “All of Me,” and where Hattie is spotted by a movie director and cast in a small role in “The Tomb of the Mummy.”

Penn gives a winning performance as the brash, mostly unlikable Ray, who is redeemed only by the beautiful music he makes. Unlike other actors who have played the lead in Allen films (John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh) he doesn’t attempt to replicate Allen’s speech patterns, but creates a distinctive portrayal of a morally bankrupt man who yet is what he claims to be — a great artist.

British thesp Morton, currently on a roll, essays the touching character of Hattie with great distinction, conveying volumes of dialogue without a word. Thurman is sardonically amusing as the bitchy Blanche, who’s more than a match for her husband. Other roles are effectively limned, with LaPaglia amusingly reprising his gangster persona and director John Waters effectively, but all too briefly, portraying a hotel manager frustrated by Ray’s habitual unreliability. Gretchen Mol appears fleetingly in the final sequence.

Look and feel of the period is deftly caught thanks to exemplary work by the visual artists involved, notably production designer Santo Loquasto and costume designer Laura Cunningham Bauer (who has fun with some of Ray’s more outré apparel). Pic is handsomely photographed by Chinese d.p. Zhao Fei, known for his work with Zhang Yimou (“Raise the Red Lantern.”) In this, Zhao’s first American work, he communicated with his collaborators via interpreters — and the results are outstanding.

The almost wall-to-wall music is glorious, with solo guitarist Howard Alden doing a sock job. Penn, incidentally, utterly convinces in the scenes in which he’s seen “playing” the guitar. Soundtrack CD will be a must for jazz lovers.

Sweet and Lowdown

Production

A Sony Classics release of a Sweetland Films presentation of a Magnolia Prods. production. Produced by Jean Doumanian. Executive producer, J.E. Beaucaire. Co-executive producers, Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe, Letty Aronson. Co-producer, Richard Brick. Directed, written by Woody Allen.

With

Emmet Ray - Sean Penn Hattie - Samantha Morton Blanche - Uma Thurman Bill Shields - Brian Markinson Al Torrio - Anthony LaPaglia Ellie - Gretchen Mol Sid Bishop - Vincent Guastaferro Mr. Haynes - John Waters Hazel - Constance Schulman Iris - Kellie Overbey Harry - James Urbaniak Omer - Mark Damon Johnson Don - Darryl Alan Reed Chester Weems - Dick Monday Movie Director - Josh Mowery William Weston - Fred Goehner Django Reinhardt - Michael Sprague Joe Bedloe - Brad Garrett As themselves: Woody Allen, Ben Duncan, Nat Hentoff, Douglas McGrath.
Camera (Du Art, Technicolor prints), Zhao Fei; editor, Alisa Lepselter; music, Dick Hyman; production designer, Santo Loquasto; art director, Tom Warren; costume designer, Laura Cunningham Bauer; sound, Les Lazarowitz; assistant director, Richard Patrick; casting, Juliet Taylor, Laura Rosenthal. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 5, 1999. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Gala.) Running time: 95 MIN.
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