Sweet and Lowdown

Sweet and Lowdown (1999)When Woody Allen stopped trying to be Ingmar Bergman, a pleasantly scrappy tone crept into his work. With the fancy dud Shadows and Fog, from 1992, Allen went over the edge of homage and into a pit of derivative muck; since then, his stuff has been rough-edged, far less studied, and generally more entertaining. His latest, Sweet and Lowdown, continues his theme of creative folly: As in Bullets Over Broadway and Deconstructing Harry, one should never expect a good artist to be a good human being. Some have interpreted Woody’s movies of the ’90s, taken together, as a prolonged mea culpa: So I slept with Soon-Yi — cut me some slack, I’m an artist. But that’s a disservice to Allen, who sees people — including himself — more complexly than that.

Sweet and Lowdown offers Allen’s most glaring example yet of the artist-as-prick. Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a jazz guitarist of the 1930s, second only to the great Django Reinhardt, represents vast talent and promise poured into a most unworthy receptacle. Emmet treats women like shit — he literally pimps on the side — and he is in all respects a thoroughly appalling specimen, an egotist and vulgarian, a crawling bug who transforms briefly into a butterfly onstage. Sean Penn, himself a great artist, doesn’t make the mistake of making Emmet lovably obnoxious, though somehow he manages the trick of putting us off Emmet while keeping us connected to everything he, Penn, is doing as an actor. Watching Emmet, we are amused not by his manner or actions but by the cosmic joke that God has bestowed beautiful gifts upon this pile of sludge.

We’re given to understand that Emmet is married to his music, but he’s also too self-absorbed to sustain a relationship past the occasional quick boink; he just blames his self-absorption on his music. During the course of the film, he takes two lovers: a mute, adorable woman named Hattie (Samantha Morton) and a sophisticated writer (Uma Thurman, who looks more comfortable here, in the ’30s setting, than she has in years; this is probably her best work since Pulp Fiction). One woman is inarticulate, the other possibly too articulate. One woman wants only to give Emmet her love; the other keeps gathering material for the book she’ll write on Emmet, and she tells him straight out what his problem is — he keeps his emotions bottled up and therefore will never be as great as his idol Django Reinhardt.

I caught a glimmer of autobiography here. Could it be that Emmet is to Django as Woody was to Bergman? Allen was eventually able to shake off the Swedish master’s influence and make his own brand of adult comedy; Emmet, who mostly plays other people’s jazz standards, doesn’t have that option. Often, Woody Allen likes to examine characters who are trapped in situations he himself managed to avoid. (Penn, too, may have an understanding of Emmet, given his rowdy public persona in the ’80s that dogs him to this day.) Gradually, a poignant portrait emerges. We continue to disapprove of Emmet’s actions — particularly his cavalier treatment of Hattie, played most endearingly by Samantha Morton using only childlike gestures and an expressive face — but we begin to understand some of what drives his scumminess as well as his art. The greatness of Django looms over Emmet — “He haunts me!” Emmet squawks at one point — and he keeps referring to himself as the world’s greatest jazz guitarist, except maybe Django Reinhardt. His overstuffed ego always has that hole in it.

Sweet and Lowdown gives us a fast and compelling autopsy of this fictional louse, though I wasn’t sure Allen needed the faux-documentary structure in which jazz buffs and experts (including himself) speak to the camera about Emmet Ray’s work and life. It makes the material feel more thin and anecdotal than it has to, and the style of the movie proper is straight narrative, not documentary (unlike Allen’sZelig); it’s just a fancy way into some of the stories Allen wants to tell about Emmet. It comes off as a little coy to be hearing real people, as themselves, speaking in all seriousness about an invented character. The one touch that might have redeemed it would’ve been to have Sean Penn discussing the research he did into Emmet’s life to prepare for playing him — then the movie would’ve been a faux-biopic. The gimmick doesn’t seriously mar the movie, but one wonders why it couldn’t have been done as a straight period piece, like Bullets Over Broadway.

Has Woody Allen been watching Trainspotting and reading Stephen King? Emmet’s two cherished pastimes, aside from the guitar and sex, are watching trains go by and shooting rats at the dump (a favorite practice of a humpbacked character in King’s book ‘Salem’s Lot). Probably, though, these obsessions are freighted with meaning: they express Emmet’s self-loathing that he doesn’t consciously acknowledge. If only he were as great as Django Reinhardt, if he didn’t have to scrape for a living, maybe then he could feel better about being a bastard — nothing is more pathetic than the second-best bastard in the world. Or maybe, if he were as great as Django, he wouldn’t be such a prick to begin with — or maybe if he weren’t such a prick, he’d be greater than Django. Regardless, Emmet is stuck with who he is. But Woody Allen, in his thirtieth outing as writer-director, still shows signs of change, improvement, depth of feeling.

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