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Sweet and Lowdown

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 25 February 2000

Written and Directed by Woody Allen. 

Starring Sean Penn, 
Samantha Morton, Anthony LaPaglia, 
Brad Garrett, Gretchen Mol, 
John Waters and Uma Thurman.

In Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen's best film in years, Sean Penn plays Emmet Ray, who, a prologue tells us, was the second-greatest jazz guitarist in the world in the 1930s, next to Django Reinhardt. When Emmet takes the stage to play, this pugnacious guy, with a swoop of brown hair and a long, thin, mean little mustache over a thin, mean little smile, suddenly turns lyrical. Seated in a chair, his legs can't stay still; his body bobs and jounces with the melody, his face changes to accentuate the notes and shifts of melody that come out through his supple fingers and the instrument he plays.

Off-stage, he turns out to be a magnificently appalling person, at times. His idea of a good time is to go down to the dump and shoot rats: he fills with boyish excitement every time the idea hits him. He also likes to go down and watch trains. He pockets small objects in people's homes and, walking home through the meatpacking district in his spotless white suit, takes them out and drops them by the wayside. When he drinks, or when he doesn't drink, he tells people that he's the greatest jazz guitarist alive...except for "that Gypsy in Europe" (Django). Sean Penn gives Emmet a cocky, very masculine swagger, to compensate for the fact that Emmet is deathly afraid inside. Despite his bravado, his attempts to pick up women are disastrously clumsy.

He does meet up with Hattie (Samantha Morton), a girl whom he and a friend meet on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Hattie turns out to be mute ("It's my day off! I want a talking girl!" Emmet complains), and she does not like to go to the dump to shoot anything, period. But despite the allusions that she may be half-witted, Hattie turns out to be anything but. She's more than happy to find herself a boyfriend, love his music, and eat at the hotels where Emmet performs with his quintet as if she hadn't had a decent morsel of food in her life. She lets it be known that she doesn't like Emmet playing around with other women, but does so in a way which, as a friend of mine would put it, is "assertive but not aggressive. Yet she does things like remembering Emmet's birthday, and he gradually comes to realize that he's crossing the border, here, into new territory with a woman.

Samantha Morton gives Hattie a great, rubbery smile, which is quite ingratiating, and great wide eyes. She doesn't utter a sound during the film, but she communicates what Hattie is thinking and feeling with great precision and clarity. She is stringently sentimental in her portrayal of her: you get the impression that this is a girl who has had to survive on her own two feet to quite an extent, which is why you become loathe to see her hurt. On the other hand, her love for Emmet is the kind that requires only the simplest but truest obligations, which is something that Emmet, for better or worse, comes to a full realization of.

What happens to Emmet and Hattie is not disclosed, for a bit, because the film takes the form of an account of Emmet's life pieced together from interviews with writers, filmmakers, and jazz experts, who recount what they've learned about Emmet, what they think might have happened to him, or what they heard, second-hand, that may or may not be true. Emmet also has some misadventures with a slinky, Bohemian type named Blanche (Uma Thurman, in her sultry femme fatale mode), who carries around a notepad and asks shady types questions like, "What's it like, 'rubbing out' a person?"; some gangsters, played by Brad Garrett (Raymond's brother in the T.V. series Everyone Loves Raymond) and Anthony LaPaglia; and a taxi dancer (Gretchen Mol) -- they end up going to watch the trains, too. The movie has been compared to City Lights, not only because it concerns a relationship between a rascal (the Tramp was always anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment) and a handicapped girl. Sweet and Lowdown starts out as howlingly funny, and ends up on a serious, unresolved note. Emmet makes a handful of recordings in a studio (Howard Alden supplied the guitar solos on the soundtrack), including one of his own compositions, and which, because they're Emmet's only recordings, are referred to by the film's jazz aficionados as his "last. Django Reinhardt, on the other hand, made many recordings over a twenty-year period, playing prolifically despite the loss of two fingers on one hand; his recordings, today, still play like a dream.

Could Emmet Ray have recorded more of his music, for others to listen to and enjoy? Sweet and Lowdown suggests that, whether or not we come to care about Emmet as a person -- and we do end up caring about him -- or no matter how much we may think we have him all figured out, there are still parts of him that will always be unknowable. They are his to deal with, alone, and to the great majority it ends up being of no consequence or concern. Whatever did or did not happen to Emmet Ray, as one of the film's commentators puts it, "we," meaning the great, grey, callous bulk of posterity, "fortunately, have these last recordings, and they're absolutely beautiful.

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