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Woody Allen has never been shy about making his films autobiographical. Even when the film's veneer is a little thicker than it is in Stardust Memories or Husbands and Wives, the Woody-Allen-ness of the situation and the story isn't hard to feel. The early comedies played with Allen's surface personality: the over-sexed, Jewish nebbish. Put the nebbish in the future and you get Sleeper; cast him as the despotic leader of a third world country, you get Bananas; make him a criminal, you have Take the Money and Run.
Later, Allen began to delve deeper into his personality and life, combining more complicated themes with his gift for storytelling. Even before the scandal broke in 1992 (you know, the Mia-Woody- Soon-Yi triangle), a careful viewer might have noticed the headwaters of the crisis in the plot lines of Another Woman and Crimes and Misdemeanors. But Husbands and Wives, released at almost the same time as the scandal hit the papers, does a good job of putting the truth forward in a way that might entertain-and change--a movie-viewer. It doesn't make apologies, and it doesn't cast the Allen character in the role of victim. Since then, Deconstructing Harry showed the Allen-character trying to maintain the worth of his art in spite of having been dragged through scandal and public shame.
Which finally brings us to his penultimate film, Sweet and Lowdown (1999), wherein Allen is able to accomplish two good turns: One, he puts a thicker fiction on the Allen-role. Two, he's made telling a good, funny story top priority once again.
Sean Penn stars as Emmet Ray (Emmet from the Yiddish & Hebrew emmis, meaning truth, plus Ray, meaning ray). Emmet "Ray of Truth" Ray is a genius with a head-full of neuroses and maladjustments. He is so involved in his art that his relationships with people invariably suffer from neglect. Does this sound like anyone else involved in the film, say it's world-class director? Woody Allen and four other actors all play jazz commentators who frame these tales about Emmet in pseudo-documentary.
Emmet Ray is a great jazz guitarist, but he's also a drunk, a kleptomaniac, and the quintessential flake. He bounces from venue to venue, winning over his listeners, while really just waiting for the chance to go down to the dump and shoot at rats. The episodes are extremely funny, the stuff of legend. Ray, though fictional, takes on verisimilitude though the "expert" commentary and from his obsession with Django Reinhardt, the amazing and real jazz guitarist of that period.
Through his foibles, we trace Ray's romance with mute and cute Samantha Morton. They are so well suited for each other that it's heartbreaking to see Ray flee from the affair out of a predictable fear of commitment while hiding behind his stature as artist. Ray's subsequent romances are doomed, and it's not until the end of his musical career that he's willing to unleash his emotions and feel grief. It's touching, and if the emotional ending is pulled rather forcibly out of an otherwise light-hearted tale, it still moved me to see Ray finally come to his first taste of emotional maturity.
Mainly, though, this is a funny movie that combines Allen's best talents:
the ability to tell a funny story and the ability to pick a great soundtrack.
It's delightful. I highly recommend it. Penn is very good at capturing that
old-time sound in his voice. The period aspects are well-done.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.