Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

Sweet and Lowdown

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

At long last, Woody Allen has pulled himself out of a slump, ascending from his recent streak of lurid, crass, redundant comedies to something almost sublime. Sweet and Lowdown shows only traces of the bitterness and self-destructive tendencies that bogged down Allen’s 1990s work.

Allen’s films always have technical merit, but recently his stories have sounded like the sad and angry ramblings of a regretful and desperate man. Like Deconstructing Harry, Mighty Aphrodite, and Celebrity, Sweet and Lowdown focuses on a fool, Emmett Ray, a genius jazz guitar player whose musicianship is just about his only admirable characteristic. But while Emmett is a chauvinistic, self-destructive fool, the story carries him into the care of a sweet and gracious woman whose persistent and resilient love coaxes glimmers of kindness around the edges of his prideful facade.

Sean Penn is phenomenal as Emmett, who loves to repeat his own critics’ acclaim that he’s “one of the two best guitarists in the world.” As an performer, Penn has fewer and fewer peers; he’s entered the circle of the world’s finest screen actors like Robert DeNiro (in DeNiro’s better years) and Daniel Day-Lewis, able to disappear so completely into a character that its as though his appearance was reinvented by an artist and his voice recreated by an offscreen voice talent.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that, in spite of Penn’s great work, a supporting character almost steals the show from him. The Oscars have a weakness for actors playing disabled characters, but they wouldn’t be out of line to hand 99′s Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Samantha Morton for her work as Hattie, the mute childlike girl who loves Emmett. Penn and Morton are a mesmerizing onscreen pair, rather like some of the romantic pairings in earlier Allen films (Manhattan, Annie Hall.)

By watching Hattie, we see that there are moments of endearing virtue in this otherwise careless and egotistical man; if anyone has any hope of helping him or at least comforting him, it is Hattie. Their relationship is fascinating, touching, even funny. She brings out the soft (or, perhaps, less-hard) side of Emmett. We watch him blather on selfishly while she looks on, and we see the hot air go out of his balloon; he ends up smiling like a puppy dog, bewildered that she’s still there in spite of his pride.

Emphasizing the generous love of quiet Hattie, Uma Thurman plays a prideful and glamorous writer who is drawn to Emmett because of his weaknesses, and she’s all too eager to exploit them in her writings. Unfortunately, we’ve seen Uma in this costume before, as the high society girl strutting around while the boys line up behind her. When she walks into the movie to replace Hattie for almost a third of the picture, the film suffers from the absence of Hattie’s light and the lack of spark in Thurman’s performance. Fortunately, that’s not the end of the movie.

As Allen gets older, the obsessions and selfishness that he made so funny in the central characters of his early films seem downright loathsome and sad in these newer works. The laughs have become less comfortable, the conclusions sour and films leaving a bad taste in my mouth. The cheer has gone out of his tone, and he’s developed a mean-spirited voice, making his last few releases different variations on the same themes of hopelessness, self-loathing, and regret. Celebrity ended with a character looking skyward at a plane skywriting “HELP” across the the sky. A similar moment in Sweet and Lowdown has Emmett crumbling at the foot of a lampost (which struck me for a moment as resembling a religious painting, with a man clutching the foot of a cross) crying out “I made a mistake! I made a mistake!” But there’s a slightly different tone here than in Celebrity. For one drunken moment, the character realizes the empty pit he’s made of his life, and the camera takes us up the lampost to the light at the top, shining benevolently down upon him. Hattie, also, is a welcome sign of hope and grace.

Why, I wonder, is Allen so fixed on this kind of despairing cry at this point in his career? I’m not in any place to answer that question or to make any judgments about the correlation between his work and his life (or the stories about his life we read in the papers, however trustworthy.) But the theme is so recurring in his last few films that I find it an inescapable question mark. Allen himself is a genius of the soul-searching comedy, and in spite of his own denials, he’s become quite an artist at portraying the emptiness behind the egotistical facades of artists.

The tendency of artists towards self-centeredness and decadence, which in the last decade was best portrayed in dark and disturbing films Barton Fink by the Coen Brothers and Henry Fool by Hal Hartley, is becoming a theme for a whole series of Woody Allen films. Sweet and Lowdown seems to be the latest chapter in a great work on the artist’s search for meaning, for self-worth, for redemption, and about the dangerous lure of vice and indulgence that will probably ruin an otherwise promising life. Allen seems so aware of the problem in this film, and less prone to the cynicism and bitterness that made Deconstructing Harry, Mighty Aphrodite, and Celebrity such sour concoctions. I’m excited to see what comes next. I’m hoping his work finds its way to some answers, to some hope, instead of stories that reach despairing dead ends.

Writer / director – Woody Allen
Director of photography – Zhao Fei
Editor – Alisa Lepselter
Music arranged and conducted by Dick Hyman
Production designer – Santo Loquasto
Producer – Jean Doumanian

Sony Pictures Classics. 95 minutes. Rated PG-13.

STARRING: Sean Penn (Emmet Ray), Samantha Morton (Hattie), Uma Thurman (Blanche), Anthony LaPaglia (Al Torrio) and Brian Markinson (Bill Shields), Gretchen Mol (Ellie).

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One Response to “Sweet and Lowdown (1999)”

  1. The Looking Closer Film Review Archive « Looking Closer at the Movies Says:

    [...] (2001) Stuart Little 2 (2002) Sunshine State (2002) Superman Returns (2006) Super Size Me (2006) Sweet and Lowdown (1999) Swimming Pool [...]

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