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September 6, 1999 2:00 AM
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TELLURIDE '99 REVIEW: With "Sweet and Lowdown," Woody Allen Breathes New Life Into a Fully Imagined

TELLURIDE '99 REVIEW: With "Sweet and Lowdown," Woody Allen Breathes New Life Into a Fully Imagined World

by Margaret A. McGurk



Blessedly, Woody Allen's new movie "Sweet and Lowdown" takes place in the
1930s.

Getting out of the '90s -- see "Bullets Over Broadway" -- relieves Allen of
the suffocating burden of his modern misanthropy -- see "Celebrity," last
year's curdled bowl of bitters -- and allows him room to breathe life into a
fully imagined world.

Even when he removes himself to another decade, though, this is still a
filmmaker who historically shows scant love of humankind. It is a testament
to his skills that he remains so popular and respected; most directors with
such loyal followings tend to treat their characters with some affection.

But who could feel warm and fuzzy about Emmet Ray, the fictional jazz
guitarist at the center of "Sweet and Lowdown?" A drunk, a deadbeat,
occasional pimp, habitual thief and career egotist, Emmet doesn't even
bother to wine and dine the women he chases. (She: "Shooting rats down at
the dump isn't my idea of a big night out." He: "Why not? We brought
sandwiches.")

Emmet's sole redeeming quality is his talent. His peers regard him as the
second best jazz guitarist alive -- right after the legendary Django
Reinhardt. Emmet is so intimidated by "that gypsy in France" that he
fainted when he laid eyes on the man.

Otherwise, he admits no fears and no needs, even after he takes up with
Hattie, a simple-minded, mute laundress -- played with astonishing subtlety
and insight by Samantha Morton. Emmet stays true to form; he abandons Hattie
and forges a neurotic union with an ex-debutante (Uma Thurman). Eventually,
he pays for his betrayal with the loss of his empty macho pose. The twist
here -- and the revelation that makes "Sweet and Lowdown" stand apart from
other recent Allen films -- is that in his loss he gains something. Or so we
are told. The information comes from documentary-style talking-head
interviews with experts, some of whom play themselves, including the
director and music historian Nat Hentoff. They define the story of Emmet Ray
as it passed down by other musicians, legends, rumors and hard evidence.

Sean Penn rips into the role of Emmett with ferocious gusto that's a joy to
watch. He taps into every delusion, insecurity and blind spot that make the
musician not only comically repulsive but also, in Allen's word, "pathetic."

There are inescapable thematic echoes in "Sweet and Lowdown" of earlier
Allen movies that explored the artist as a destructive force, from
"Deconstructing Harry" all the way back to "Purple Rose of Cairo." This
time, he has pushed a little further in searching for a resolution. He gives
the story a shape almost like a parable, and his anti-hero a fate almost
like redemption.

It is refreshing to see a Woody Allen movie without a specific Woody Allen
figure at the center. Nonetheless, it's hard to shake the feeling that in
granting a moment of grace to a character as imperfect as Emmet Ray, the
filmmaker might not be telling us that he has found a kinder, mellower way
to judge the species - and himself.


[Margaret A. McGurk is film critic at The Cincinnati Enquirer. She has also
written for The Independent Film and Video Monthly.]

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