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Weekly Alibi Portrait of the Artist as a Jazz Man

By Os Davis

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  Talk about your brutal honesty. "I'm the greatest in the world," proclaims Emmet Ray. Never heard the name? To aficionados -- explains the customary, polite white-on-black title crawl introducing Woody Allen's 30th feature Sweet and Lowdown -- Ray was a little-known jazz guitarist who flourished briefly in the 1930s, usually considered second in "all-time great status" only to the legendary Django Reinhardt. The director himself describes the mythical guitarist as "funny, pathetic, flamboyant, and boorish."

Sean Penn stars as mockumentary subject Ray in Allen's first such pic since Zelig. (On the heels of releases such as The Blair Witch Project and Drop Dead Gorgeous, one can't help but wonder if faux-realism will make for the mark of cinematic hipness in the '00s.) Strategically setting the work in the dirty '30s, Allen creates a sentimental pastiche recalling past productions Bullets Over Broadway, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days and Broadway Danny Rose.

It is this last film that Sweet and Lowdown most resembles. Ever-flummoxed Ray, like the ever-flummoxed Rose, serves as unwitting focus for tales equal parts outrageous and, well, pathetic. Opening in a Chicago club glowing the warm orange of nostalgia, movie audiences are rapidly introduced to the protagonist and his artistic non-sensibilities: "He's always late, drunk, or [not showing] up," bemoans a manager. Turns out ol' Emmet's negotiating with chicks he pimps for extra cash; quicker than you can say "it seems to me I've heard that song before," all is forgiven with a few angelic strains from the guitarist. Murmurs of "magic" are elicited the way only a maestro can.

Ray is also prey to a maestro's Don Juan tactics with the ladies as well, for through the reels no fewer than three women will share his affections on long-term bases: long-suffering Ellie (Gretchen Mol), absolutely charming Hattie (Samantha Morton) and society sycophant Blanche (Uma Thurman). Meanwhile, the legends pile up, in episodes becoming so well-known as to adopt titles like "The Crescent Moon Story" and "The Hollywood Story."

Against this backdrop of alcohol-driven chaos, Ray accepts the twists and turns he creates with unabashed proclamations coming so often they resemble samples. "I have great talent," he says. "I am an artist." "I was amazing the second I picked up the instrument." Boorish on the surface, these neat mots actually act as anchor for a talent clearly overwhelmed by itself. When Hattie, mute from childhood, begins sharing his bed and his life, she seems the ultimate foil for the guitarist. Speechlessness is a condition that Ray thrives in, allowing the character side-splitting/apoplexy-inducing pillow talk like, "You liked that? I knew you would. They say I'm a wonderful lover."

Penn and Thurman alone revive notions that Allen's latest run of star-weighted films (slated follow-up Small Time Crooks boasts a cast of names like Hugh Grant, Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, and Tracey Ullman) can successfully utilize stars in a fashion dissimilar to Kenneth Branagh's ham-handed interpretation of a human being in Celebrity. Penn doesn't attempt to ape the Woodman's numerous nebbish incarnations -- a character best served by not doing so. (Are you listening, Shakespeare lad?) Uma's no Keaton-style nice-gal here in a performance that might bag her the quasi-obligatory Best Supporting Actress nod given Allen heroines at Oscar time, were it not for the to-melt-for show turned in by Morton.

Where Sweet and Lowdown will doubtless fall short -- for the average popcorn-muncher not enthralled with either the New York neurotic or Howard Alden's jazz stylings -- is in a plot stretched way too thin. If Emmet Ray is as "fascinating" a character as on-screen Allen states, why does this flick devote so many minutes to repetition of mere idiosyncratic detail? We know inside of thirty minutes that Emmet shoots rats at the dump, hangs out at trainyards, stifles his emotions and is unhealthily intimidated by the great Django Reinhardt. And what's up with Allen denying audiences Ray's eventual success after so much build-up? Was the climax left on a cutting-room floor?

Then there's the title. Not nice enough to be called "sweet," and not insidious enough to earn a "lowdown" moniker, Allen's appellation feels off in describing either film or subject. Bittersweet and Okay probably wouldn't play as well in Peoria, though.

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