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Running Time: -99
Date: 09/04/1999
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Sweet and Lowdown (1999)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Jazz Stinger

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

She's sweet and he's lowdown in Woody Allen's new movie starring Sean Penn as the world's second greatest jazz guitarist and Samantha Morton as a mute laundress who has the misfortune to cross his path.

Of the 30-odd movies Allen has made as a writer or director all have shown off his effortless flair for storytelling, formulating rich character studies with subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) subtexts, and playing with plot structures. Those strengths are still evident here. But, Sweet and Lowdown is the first of his films to deal specifically with his passion for jazz. Many scenes focus lovingly on Penn as (the fictional) Emmet Ray playing his guitar, alone or with a band. The camera lingers on him or shows the other characters mesmerized by him. He's amazing. (The music is by Howard Alden, but Penn learned how to finger the guitar correctly. His face and passion seem real.)

Obsessed with the world's greatest jazz guitarist, (the real) Django Reinhardt, when Emmet's not playing, he has the personality of a jackhammer. He spends money, gets drunk, goes into debt, and blows through women like they're tenpins at a bowling alley. That's where Morton comes in as the "sweet" end of the deal. As the mute, Hattie, she works absolute wonders with her face and eyes. (She's already received many end-of-the-year accolades.) She's so adorable that we immediately fall for her and understand why Emmet falls for her as well, though he's unable to show it. Even after Emmet marries another woman, a writer played by Uma Thurman, he can't stop thinking about Hattie. "I even thought about you two or three times," he tells her later.

Due to Emmet's reprehensible nature, Sweet and Lowdown contains a little of the bitterness from Allen's last two unsatisfying movies, Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Celebrity (1998). But thanks to Morton's presence, it gets closer to the sweetness of the wonderful Everyone Says I Love You (1996). Like the line from Stardust Memories (1980), this one is like one of Allen's "earlier, funnier movies."

With: Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman, Anthony LaPaglia, James Urbaniak, Gretchen Mol, John Waters