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Sweet and Lowdown

Filthy says:
"Sweet and Lowdown's Pretty Fucking Good!"

I'm no urban sophisticate, by any stretch of the imagination. But I do know that jazz music used to be about getting drunk on cheap gin and stomping your feet. Nowadays it's the kind of thing Jaguar-driving pricks listen to on their overpriced Bose stereos so that they can seem smart without actually having to read books. So the idea of seeing a fake documentary about a jazz guitarist in the 30's made me a little nervous. It could have been a real disaster, with some garbage about jazz music being the rythm of the tortured soul. But damn if Woody Allen doesn't somtimes remember that he's better at being funny than important.

Sean Penn plays Emmett Ray, the jazz guitarist who knows that he's brilliant, but not as good as Django Reinhardt, the mutilated real-life gypsy. For kicks, Penn likes to watch trains in the freight yard, and he takes his dates along with him to shoot rats at the dump. Even though he's a musical genius, he will never be a bigshot because he's too irresponsible and stupid. He gets fired from every job he has because he either doesn't show up, shows up late, or shows up drunk. Hell, I can sympathize with that. If Emmett Ray were real, and having those troubles today, I would send him an application from the Ralston Amoco, where he could make a living and not have to give up the things he loves, like drinking on the job and kleptomania.

Penn and his drummer are trying to pick up girls on the boardwalk in Atlantic City when they come across Hattie, a mute girl played by Samantha Morton, and her friend. Penn gets stuck with Hattie, and he spends the day being pissed off about his bad luck at not choosing the girl who can talk. Eventually, he asks her to come up to his room and hear him play guitar and she agrees. Morton jumps Penn's bones before he ever gets a chance to pull his sleazy seduction act, so the two of them start hanging around together.

Penn eventually fucks up the Atlantic City job and ends up going to Hollywood to play as a back-up musician in a short movie. He thinks it's going to be his big break, but when a director discovers Morton stuffing her maw with a giant donut and figures she'll be perfect for a love scene he needs, Penn goes off the deep end and they hot-foot it out of there quick.

He takes off one night while Hattie is sleeping, and ends up getting married to Blanche, a rich debutante-turned writer, played by Uma Thurman. Blanche wants to meet and write about colorful characters, but after a while, Penn's idiotic but passionate artist thing doesn't entertain Thurman as much as Anthony LaPaglia's tough-guy mobster bit. Eventually Penn catches them making hay, and we see three different versions of what happens, because, don't forget, the movie is supposed to be a documentary, and Woody Allen must have wanted to make some statement about the unreliability of the documentary form or some such horse-shit. Personally I think he just liked the three different possibilities he came up with, and needed a way to fit them all in.

Penn ends up leaving Thurman, trying to get back together with Morton, and finally going to New York, where he is last seen drunk and smashing his guitar because he has to go out on a date with already-washed-up "it" girl Gretchen Mol. It turns out that right at that moment, Penn's career as a brilliant guitarist fades off into obscurity, because it's about time to wrap things up after an hour and forty minutes.

The first two-thirds of the movie are pretty fucking hilarious. Sean Penn seems to do his best work when he's playing a half-retard, like Emmett Ray or Jeff Spicoli. Penn makes you really believe he's a dim asshole, who has such a big ego that he doesn't realize he's so full of shit. Maybe this is because in real life, that's not so far from the truth. Penn has a carpenter build him a big wooden crescent moon, so he can come floating down on the stage in a grand entrance, but then he gets scared that he's going to break his neck on the thing, and he gets so drunk that he can't keep his balance on the way down and ends up looking as awkward as two pimply teenagers groping each other in their parents' rumpus room. The scene is the perfect illustration of the dipshit who has a single talent and then thinks he's some kind of genius, and stretches himself way beyond his means.

Samantha Morton is the most interesting actress in the movie, which is really something considering she doesn't speak a single line or even have big boobs. Just by moving her eyes and head around, though, you can tell that she's not a half-wit, like everyone says, but has spent a lifetime hearing it so much that she just accepts it when she hears it. Every time she comes on the screen, she's stuffing her gaping maw with some kind of food, and there are always crumbs around her mouth. She's cute, but not sexy, and she never comes across as pitiful or heroic. She's just a laundress who can't talk, and loves listening to Emmett Ray play his guitar.

It's too bad Uma Thurman didn't spend more time with food in her mouth, because maybe then she would have shut up occasionally and not proven that she's one of the worst actresses alive. I couldn't tell if she was trying too hard or not trying hard enough, but she kept going in and out of her character, who was admittedly pretty silly to begin with.

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The documentary form seemed to be nothing more than a ploy for Woody Allen to get to pretend for a while that he's a bigshot authority on old jazz music. Except for the three different versions of the same story bit and a little nudging along of the story, there was no reason for the mockumentary ploy.

There must be some kind of standard clause in Sean Penn's contract that he has to have one scene that showcases his explosive acting power. Otherwise, I can't imagine where the ending fits in to this movie. The guy spends his whole life bottling up his feelings and only letting them out when it comes time to kill rodents at the dump, and then suddenly he's overcome with grief one night when he's drunk and taking some girl he doesn't love to the train tracks with him. What's different about this girl and these train tracks, though? Nothing.

When Woody Allen tries to, he can still make you laugh until you want to piss your pants, but unfortunately, he doesn't try for whole movies anymore. Instead, he starts off rolling along, with plenty of gags and funny characters, and then suddenly comes to a halt, reaching for some kind of deeper meaning. If I ever met Woody Allen, I'd tell him to cut that shit out and that even though he's a sick fuck for sleeping with his daughter, I still respect him.

I give Sweet and Lowdown Four Fingers for having more funny than emotionally overwrought scenes, and for keeping Uma Thurman's involvement in the whole thing pretty minimal. Also, there are much worse ways to spend an hour-and-a-half than listening to a bunch of Django Reinhardt songs.

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