Sony // 1999 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // June 21st, 2000
"Your feelings are locked away so deeply, you don't even know where to find them."
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
Set in the 1930s, Sweet And Lowdown is writer/director Woody Allen's faux docudrama about the world's second greatest jazz guitar player, Emmet Ray (Sean Penn). Using interviews with jazz historians and Allen himself, the film chronicles the life and misadventures of a jazz genius.
It seems strange that a man who is so obsessed with an art form, in this case, jazz, would wait so long in his film career to make a movie about the subject. With Sweet And Lowdown, we finally have Woody Allen's (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Love And Death) jazz movie.
In Sweet and Lowdown, Allen had the good sense to cast Sean Penn as his flawed but brilliant lead character. Penn gives a performance that is, simply, a revelation. Sitting there watching Penn give this truly comic turn I was reminded of the first time I saw Robert De Niro work in a comedy. That film was Midnight Run and my reaction was the same as watching Penn in this movie. Who knew? I know Penn first gained fame in a comedy of sorts, Fast Times At Ridgemont High but it has been so long since then that I had forgotten what kind of comedy chops he possessed. He takes that intensity that has become a trademark of his in such films as The Thin Red Line, Dead Man Walking and The Falcon And The Snowman and turned it all around giving life to Emmet Ray, making him one of the funniest Allen creations in ages. Penn well deserved his Oscar nomination and I hope one day he gets the little gold statue. He certainly deserves it.
The other Oscar nominated performance in Sweet And Lowdown comes from Samantha Morton as Emmet's mute girlfriend, Hattie. In a word, Morton is astounding! Without uttering a word, Morton speaks more than any ten actresses. Love, pain, longing and devotion are written across her face in a flash, sometimes in the same instant. Like the great stars of silent cinema, words would get in the way of her acting. The film perks up whenever she is onscreen and with every appearance I found myself longing to see her again. Sean Penn may be the star and the heart of Sweet And Lowdown, but Morton gives the movie its soul. Although Angelina Jolie won for Girl, Interrupted, it was Samantha Morton who deserved to walk away with Oscar. Chalk it up to another in the long list of Oscar popularity contests winning over substance.
Uma Thurman (The Avengers, Beautiful Girls, Henry And June) costars as Emmet's wife, Blanche. As always, Thurman is one of the most stunning women in film, but those looks often mask a considerable talent that Allen puts on ample display. As the easily influenced and impressed socialite, Thurman hits every comedic mark given her. She manages to be both very funny and very sad, all at the same time. It's very strong work from a performer who just gets better and better.
In the broadest role in the movie, Anthony LaPaglia (Summer Of Sam, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Betsy's Wedding) costars as hitman/bodyguard Al Torrio. Torrio is a man who is not too smart, but could also not be considered dumb and, it's a fine line that LaPaglia walks with ease. A man with an edge, he becomes the fancy of Thurman's Blanche after she has grown tired of Emmet. Together LaPaglia and Thurman make a great comedy team. I finished watching Sweet and Lowdown hoping Allen would revisit the two of them for their own feature.
With Sweet And Lowdown, Woody Allen is in one of his sentimental moods. This picture joins a list of Allen films that include Bullets Over Broadway, Radio Days, and The Purple Rose Of Cairo. The big difference between those films and this one is the lack of a typical "Woody Allen" stand-in character. Unlike Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, Sean Penn is allowed to be his own man and the film is stronger for it.
The movie possesses the usual quota of Allen one-liners but there is also seriousness present. That quality of sadness that I saw in Thurman's performance is also a tone that is everywhere throughout Sweet And Lowdown. It's a tone that stayed with me and it shows a growth in the films of Woody Allen that I certainly appreciated.
As with any period film from Allen, attention to detail is very high. Production qualities are at the highest level with special mention going out to costume designer Laura Cunningham Bauer, music arranger Dick Hyman, production designer Santo Loquasto and director of photography Zhao Fei. All turn in beautiful work and all are to be congratulated.
This being a Columbia TriStar release, my expectations were high, and, for the most part, those expectations were met. Contrast is strong with the image doing justice by Fei's cinematography. Flesh tones are well rendered, appearing natural and lifelike. The only problems that I encountered were some instances of digital shimmer. The problems were limited to only a few sections of the film but they do exist. Otherwise the print was clean and free of imperfections.
Soundwise, well, Woody Allen is a big supporter of mono soundtracks, and that is what is heard here. However, this is a pretty rich sounding soundtrack. Dialogue is clear and well placed with all of that great music coming through loud and clear. The recording is pristine with no distractions like pops or background hiss. Being the kind of movie this is, I can't imagine a 5.1 remix really adding anything to the presentation, so the whole mono thing is no big deal to me. If this is the way the filmmaker intended it to be heard, well, who am I to question it?
First off, Sweet And Lowdown is a Woody Allen film and that is going to turn some people away right there. While I would not call this your typical Allen film, it does possess the requisite amount of Allenisms. Chances are if you like his movies, you will enjoy Sweet And Lowdown. If you don't care for his style of humor or filmmaking, well Sweet And Lowdown is not going to change your mind.
The disc has a definite lack of extras. This rests squarely on Mr. Allen's shoulders, and while I respect his wishes on this matter, I wish he would change his mind. I don't need a commentary track from him. After all, nobody makes films more personal, so to me a commentary track would be somewhat redundant. What I would like to see are some making-of style features and documentaries. I would love to see the man in action, and I'd love to see what goes on the page and the changes that are made to realize it on the screen. Maybe with his current release of Small Time Crooks coming from Dreamworks, they will bend his point of view a little bit and we can get some goodies on that upcoming DVD release.
Another Woody Allen movie...and this is not the same old thing. Sweet And Lowdown has more heart than any of his recent work. That heart comes from the stellar work of stars Penn and Morton. The qualities everyone expects from an Allen film are present but they are made warmer and sadder by the performances of his two leads. Of his recent work I think this is his best film since Manhattan Murder Mystery and overall his best movie since The Purple Rose Of Cairo. I'm a fan of the man and of his films. If you feel the same way, don't hesitate to pick this disc up. It gets solid treatment from Columbia, suffering only from a lack of extras mandated by the filmmaker himself. Otherwise this is good purchase.
For the first time Woody Allen viewer, well, Sweet And Lowdown is not a bad place to start. It does not suffer from any of the filmmaker's excesses and is entertaining, moving and funny. For a trial run, give this disc a shot as a solid rental. Non-fans and Mia Farrow are advised to stay away. While it may not offend you, it is certainly not going to change your mind about the man and his work.
Sweet And Lowdown is acquitted of all charges. Sean Penn is ordered to do more comedy and Samantha Morton is asked to appear in front of this court sometime soon. Mr. Allen is asked to consider the inclusion of special features and Columbia TriStar is asked to not sit on their laurels. If there is no other business, this case is dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Theatrical Trailers
* Talent Files