Sweet and Lowdown

Stars: Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Uma Thurman
Director: Woody Allen

Sean Penn is absolutely marvelous in this sweet and funny new film from Woody Allen. Here he plays the crass and super vain and egotistical Emmet Ray …the world’s second greatest guitar player (circa 1930’s).

Ray’s character is introduced by jazz fanatic Woody Allen in a mock- documentary style interview with Allen himself and intercut with comments and stories from jazz critics and writers to complete the joke. The running gag about Ray is that he acknowledges only one man superior to himself and that would be the real life jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt who hailed from France. Ray faints at the sight of him!

From there, Penn takes the lead as the wacky Ray, never allowing a moment to pass without telling everyone how great he is. Fortunately his classical jazz guitar playing proves that he’s not all mouth. Penn actually learned the fingering for the character’s complex solos; Howard Alden did the actual playing and it’s beautiful to listen to throughout the film.

As crass as Ray is, Penn makes him extraordinarily likable; he’s a kleptomaniac; he’s late to club dates, shows up drunk or not at all; he’s a ladies man and sometimes pimp and he’s always, always in debt. When not playing guitar, his favorite activities include train watching and shooting rats at the local dump with his .45-caliber pistol. In fact, he even takes his dates on such outings. He’s likable because despite it all, he’s funny and there’s even a sweetness about him.

The movie details Ray’s romantic escapades, his long affair with Hattie the mute laundress he meets on a New Jersey boardwalk and later Blanche (Uma Thurman), a ritzy would-be writer fascinated with extreme men.

Wonderfully played by Samantha Morton, Hattie is the one girl who loves Ray deeply and brings out the best in him although Ray refuses to admit it. He’s an artist who needs his freedom so Hattie is as expendable as any other woman he’s ever loved and left.

Lotta says: It’s a cute, silly episodic film tied together by Allen’s interviewers but Penn makes it all work; he and Samantha Morton. For this is one of those little films that some people will be smart enough to discover as a tiny jewel. And I’m no great fan of Woody Allen.