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Critics have always looked for screen situations and the real life of woody Allen when judging his films. He continues to make films despite being more reclusive in the past five years. “Sweet & Lowdown” is a departure of his usual style. This is a story based on a 1930s fictitious jazz guitarist by the name of Emmet Ray (Sean Penn). Allen has always been a jazz fanatic and this showcases his passion. The film feels like a jazz jam session with a burst of intensity amongst a general mellow flow.
Emmet Ray is an erratic, ego-driven person who’ll tell anyone he is the world’s best jazz guitarist, except for the legendary and real Django Reinhardt. Emmet parties, gambles and sleeps his way around the country. His girlfriends come second to his music, but he also lives for watching trains and shooting rats at garbage tips. However, he makes a deep connection with Hattie (Samantha Morton), a mute girl from a childhood illness. They make an apparent perfect match and, together with his drummer Bill Shields (Brian Markinson), settle in Los Angeles. Emmet and Hattie’s relationship forms the emotional crux of the film. But Emmet fears this notion of a long-term relationship and wants to break free, despite her adoration of him. He meets a socialite, Blanche (Uma Thurman), who coaxes him into an unhealthy marriage. She is a writer who matches Emmet in her self-absorption.
“Sweet & Lowdown” is more dramatic than Woody Allen’s recent films but comedic elements are still evident. Sean Penn throws himself into the lead role perfectly. He seems right for the changed situations that occur. But he doesn’t steal the scenes. Samantha Morton gives a heartbreaking performance of real magnitude. She captures Hattie’s sweet personality with infectious facial expressions. Her scenes with Penn are the momentous points of the film. There is a stellar supporting cast, including the talented Gretchen Mol, as another of Emmet’s would-be conquests, and Anthony LaPaglia as a gangster. I was a little disappointed with Uma Thurman, as the eccentric heiress and writer that Blanche is. She doesn’t add much to the film at all, yet she is always capable of much better. Somehow, “Pulp Fiction” has been a hard act to follow for her.
It’s no surprise that Allen’s screenplay is intelligent and perceptive. The film takes an honest, graceful look at love and the connection between romance and art. He superbly underplays the scene between Emmet and Hattie when all builds up to an emotional moment near the end of the film. Viewers will see how it unfolds at the conclusion. The emotional content is only strong in parts, though. It is the wealth of stories from the golden era of jazz music that is a delight and the soundtrack attests to that well. “Sweet & Lowdown” is a mostly enjoyable film.