Sweet & Lowdown
Woody Allen's career now covers 35 years and 35 films, the longest of any American writer-director in history. From the beginning he has insisted on having total creative control, and to ensure it he has always worked outside the studio system. Though his films have never made much money here in the United States ("Annie Hall" was the exception) his producers recoup their investments with sales abroad, and have been satisfied enough to keep on underwriting his work. Stars by the dozens line up to be asked into his films, accepting low pay, complete secrecy in production, and no promotional tours as the condition of the work.
For his current film, "Sweet & Lowdown," he has found Sean Penn -- one of America's premier actors and arguably the finest of his generation -- and given him a role unlike anything he has ever done before, and Penn triumphs in it, deservedly getting an Academy Award nomination for his work. He plays Emmet Ray, a great (fictional) jazz guitarist of the 1930s, second only to the godlike Django Reinhart. Emmet is also a lush, a petty thief, a womanizer, and in general not too bright about life and love. His idea of a hot date is to take his girl to the nearest town dump and shoot rats with her. And when he's not doing that he likes to go down and watch trains. But when he plays the guitar he takes himself and his audience to a place somewhere near paradise.
Along the way he meets Hattie, a mute laundress, and for some reason that he surely does not understand finds himself crazy about her. She is played by the English actress Samantha Morton in a way that reminds me of the famous comic scene in "The Court Jester" in which Glynis Johns must pretend to be the mute granddaughter of Danny Kaye when they are stopped by the King's men on the road -- in other words a little jerkier than would be realistic. And where it works to great effect in the early film, it frankly bothered me here. Nevertheless, she was nominated for an Oscar as well.
There are two remarkable attractions to this film. First, the smoothness of both the writing and direction-- often a weakness in Allen's work. He seems here to have taken his time and composed characters who stay well within the story and their relationships to each other; no one seems to have dropped in from another movie, as is sometimes the case with his films. And his direction is fluid and unobtrusive. Part of the credit must go to his Chinese cinematographer Fei Zhao, who comes to him from a brilliant career as the cinematographer for "Raise the Red Lantern" and "The Emperor and the Assassin," among other films. He shows here a beautiful period lighting sense, and an eye for composition that in even the most complex shots always keeps our attention on what is important.
The second attraction is Penn himself. Sporting a haircut that looks like Don King with a combover, and a New York hepcat accent that never wavers, he has a magical way with a line and a glance. And the beatific smile that lights his face when he plays is a joy to see. Penn's body control is extraordinary too; one extremely difficult piece of physical comedy, involving a seat in a crescent moon on stage, is worthy of the great silent comedians. I've always been amazed at this actor's range, but I never expected to see him do perfect pratfalls in a comedy.
"Sweet & Lowdown" is a lovely, witty film that is one of Allen's very best. And his best is very good indeed.