Woody Allen makes beautiful music but only fitful comedy with his story of "the second greatest guitar player in the world." Sean Penn plays Emmett Ray, an irresponsible, womanizing swing guitar player in Depression-era Am... more »erica who is guided by an ego almost as large as his talent. "I'm an artist, a truly great artist," he proclaims time and time again, and when he plays, soaring into a blissed-out world of pure melodic beauty, he proves it. Samantha Morton almost steals the film as his mute girlfriend Hattie, a sweet Chaplinesque waif who loves him unconditionally, and Uma Thurman brings haughty moxie to her role as a slumming socialite and aspiring writer who's forever analyzing Emmett's peculiarities (like taking his dates to shoot rats at the city dump). The vignettelike tales are interspersed with comments by jazz aficionados and critics, but this is less a Zelig-like mockumentary than an extension of the self-absorbed portraits of Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity. The lazy pace drags at times and the script runs dry between comic centerpieces--the film screams for more of Allen's playful invention--but there's a bittersweet tenderness and an affecting vulnerability that is missing from his other recent work. Shot by Zhao Fei (The Emperor and the Assassin, Raise the Red Lantern), it's one of Allen's most gorgeous and colorful films in years, buoyed by toe-tapping music and Penn's gruffly charming performance. --Sean Axmaker« less
"Throughout history, especially when the world was a much bigger place, before the time that whenever a "celebrity" sneezed it was front page tabloid news, how many truly great artists-- those of genius, even-- went unknown, unheralded and unrecognized to the end? Perhaps there was another Monet in our midst who, for whatever reason, was never noticed; who can say with any certainty there was not, or is not? It's a consideration writer/director Woody Allen examines in his often humorous, and more often poignant, "Sweet and Lowdown," starring Sean Penn and Samantha Morton. In it, Allen chronicles the life of the fictitious Emmet Ray (Penn), who just may have been the second greatest guitar player in the world during the `30s. Allen employs the effective (in his hands) storytelling device of "interviews" with those who knew Ray in one capacity or another, to fill in the gaps as he attempts to draw a picture of this talented genius, about whom very little is really known. Only a handful of recordings-- made during the final years-- remain of who and what Ray is, or was. The portrait that comes into focus is that of a man, who though gifted as a musician, had a bit more trouble when it came to living his day to day life. Self-centered, irresponsible and taken to drink, he was something of a lowdown character. Then, one day in Atlantic City, Ray meets a sweet, young girl, Hattie (Morton), and they begin a relationship of sorts. The problem is, Ray is a self professed free spirit, an artist, who goes where he wants and does what he wants. Not exactly conducive to a sold relationship. But inbetween, there's the music; and, as Ray himself will tell anyone who will listen, he's the best guitar player in the world, with the possible exception of this "gypsy in France, "-- Django Reinhardt. And so, for your consideration, this is Emmet Ray-- the story of the man, and the woman who loved him. Told in his inimitable, signature style, Allen presents his fiction in humanistic terms that bring Emmet Ray and his times to life in transporting fashion. He successfully captures the essence and ambience of the era, just as he did with "Radio Days," in 1987. This time period-- circa 1930-- is something of Allen's forte, in fact. Few contemporary directors in even fewer films have managed to depict it so vividly and believably as Allen has here. Through Ray, he takes you into the life itself, behind the scenes, as it were, and gives you a real sense of what these times were all about. And, in conjunction with the interviews that lead to the flash-backs, it makes Ray seem as real as any figure in history you'd come to know through the respective media of film or print. The story is engaging and devoid of pretense, and Allen tempers his own ego and presents it in a way that makes this one, arguably, one of his best films. Penn, who should have won an Oscar for his work in "Dead Man Walking," received a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Emmet Ray, and deservedly so, though he was edged out by Kevin Spacey, who received the award for "American Beauty" that year (Russell Crowe was also in the running for "The Insider"-- quite a year!). There were no losers that year, however (as they say), as-- the award business aside-- Penn's performance is one of the most affecting of his career. The Ray he presents is a total, well-rounded and three-dimensional character. Watching him is like seeing the history of someone unfold before your eyes; not an actor, but a very real person, complete with every detail and flaw of his day to day existence. It's terrific work that, with Allen's guidance, immerses you totally in the story and in Ray's life. As Hattie, Samantha Morton is like the second coming of Giulietta Masina; like Fellini's wife and star, she is wonderfully expressive and able to convey so much with a movement of her eyes or just a glance, so reminiscent of Masina's Gelsomina in "La Strada." And though outwardly Hattie is fairly reserved, Morton leaves no doubt that within her there is need and desire, but with little expectation. This is a young woman who is vulnerable and has known pain; someone with whom you readily empathize. When she hooks up with Ray, it quickly becomes a matter of concern, because you care for Hattie, and from the outset you realize that this relationship is going to be fragile, at best. It's an inspired performance that landed Morton a nomination for Best Supporting Actress-- and she certainly deserved it (ultimately, it went to Angelina Jolie for "Girl, Interrupted"). Uma Thurman turns in a memorable performance, as well, as Blanche, a writer who crosses paths with Ray and has a significant impact on his life. Thurman makes Blanche credible, and she looks amazing, too. The "'30s" look suits her extremely well, and cinematographer Zhao Fei (who did a magnificent job with this entire film) captures her best angles and achieves what just may be the best presentation of Thurman in any film yet. It's a supporting, but pivotal role, and Thurman does it quite well. The supporting cast includes Anthony LaPaglia (Al Torrio), Dan Moran (Boss), Brian Markinson (Bill Shields), Tony Darrow (Ben), Gretchen Mol (Ellie), John Waters (Mr. Haynes), Brad Garrett (Joe Bedloe), Carolyn Saxon (Phyliss) and Molly Price (Ann). When Woody Allen is "on," his films are insightful and entertaining, and while subtle, are vibrantly alive. All of which is the case with "Sweet and Lowdown," in which he demonstrates-- his own personal neuroses notwithstanding-- his grasp and understanding of human nature-- what it is that underneath it all really makes people tick. He's no Ingmar Bergman, but at his best, he's at least a reasonable facsimile. And this IS on of his best. It's the magic of the movies."
Sean Penn and Samantha Morton Shine!
carol irvin | United States | 07/11/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"All the rumors you hear about Penn's being such the best actor of his generation must be true. In performance after performance, he becomes whomever he needs to become, whether Death Row convict ("Dead Man Walking") or eccentric lover veering into mental illness ("She's So Lovely") or, in this film, Emmet Ray, a jazz guitarist in the early part of the 20th century. I could swear Penn really knows how to play a guitar like Django R, he's so convincing as Emmet Ray! Ray excuses any atrocious behavior he engages in by his standard line to everyone, "But I'm an artist," reminding us of John Cusack's similar role in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway." Samantha Morton shines as Ray's girlfriend, a mute laundress. Uma Thurman plays the vamp while wearing a stunning wardrobe from the 1920s. Oscar nominations for Penn and Morton were well deserved and, regardless of how you feel about Woody Allen these days, the film stands on its own, especially with the bravura acting ability of Penn and the luminosity of Morton. Allen makes a brief appearance as a narrator in the film but is not a character in it. Penn does NOT play Woody Allen in the film, which is what Allen has been accused of making his leading men do in his most recent films. I have no doubt that Penn COULD play Woody Allen if he wanted to do so but in this film he is Emmet Ray, right down to his toes."
To see it is to love it....
Veronica | Brooklyn, NY | 04/23/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"A Woody Allen masterpiece and although I love Woody Allen, I don't say that about all his movies. I was especially impressed with the acting and the complex characters presented in the film. Sean Penn plays Emmet Ray, an incredibly talented Jazz guitarist who is every bit aware of it (annoyingly so) and uses every opportunity to boast about how he is one of the best guitarists in the world, second only to the great Django Reinhart. Yet, this fact seems to be one that haunts him constantly and keeps him insecure and vulnerable despite all the fronts he puts up. His love life is also one to ponder. Ray is a brutish, uncaring, and unfaithful lover to every woman he has ever known. He does not change his ways much, even after he meets the right woman, Hattie, played by Samantha Morton. Hattie is a mute girl which seems to be right up Ray's alley, since she never questions or challenges him as his other girlfriend's had. Hattie's sweetness and unwavering devotion to Ray ironically are not really perceived as signs of weakness but rather almost elevate Hattie to somewhat of a modern-day heroine who, through her love, is able to transform the ways of Ray to make him want to be a better man."
Woody back to basics.
M Darrow | everywhere at once | 04/03/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"It's such a shame that Woody Allen's films just aren't opened to the large audiences anymore. Sweet and Lowdown, Allen's latest comedic invention, is a film that seems to go back to style of comedic farce and character study that Woody took on in his first major films. At times a mock documentary in the vein of "Take the Money and Run" and "Zelig", Sweet and Lowdown is a more mature film that has a lot more notes to it than the early movies. This film also features something that no other Allen film has had - a truly transformative performance from an actor. Sean Penn and Allen paint such a quircky and complex character that I actually left the theatre thinking Emmitt Ray must have been a real person. Surely no filmakers and actor could come up with such a figure. But alas they did and this is the magic of this film which also features great supporting work and good music to boot."
A labour of love of music, cinema, and humanity
Ian Muldoon | Coffs Harbour, NSW Australia | 10/09/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Is being a great artist licence to be a despicable human? (Though to be fair, the character played by Sean Penn is not wholly despicable. ) In any case that's one theme that lingers over this fine work. Mr Allen's love of music, of his characters, of being American, illuminates this film.
Familiar but unexpected, quirky and wry, this is a film to relish and is very much a visual, musical, cinematic delight. For an individual who allegedly hates the automobile have some of them every looked so wondrous as in this film? Worth owning."