Perhaps the best thing to be said for Woody Allen's new film Sweet and Lowdown is that its star, Sean Penn, isn't doing an impression of the maestro. This is news: In most of Allen's movies, not only the lead actors but also, in many cases, the lead actresses, are mimicking Woody. In his last film, Celebrity, Kenneth Branagh's mannerisms and speech patterns were so dead-on that he dropped the bottom out of a movie that didn't have much bottom to begin with. You couldn't figure out if Branagh's body jerks and cranky, wheedling nasality were intended affectionately; they seemed cruelly satiric at times, and yet the director, who wields a martinet's control over his movies, must have endorsed the actor's riffs. Maybe Allen, world-class narcissist that he is, decided it was better to be dissed than dismissed; any attention is better than none. When he made his previous film, Deconstructing Harry, he didn't need a surrogate; playing a writer who philanders his way through his nasty squall of an existence, he dissed himself, or at least his public image of himself, and many people interpreted the results as scathing self-analysis. But the film wasn't all that scabrous, really; essentially it was an apologia for a man who can't function in life, only in art. And as every artist knows, art is more important than life, right?
But it helps if at least there's some real artistry going on, and most of Allen's forays into purported self-criticism are less interesting as artworks than as analytic sessions writ large. In Sweet and Lowdown, he's once again presenting for our approval and opprobrium a cad-genius -- in this case, Sean Penn's Emmet Ray, a legendary (fictional) jazz guitarist of the thirties who quickly faded into oblivion. Jamming onstage, Emmet has a blissfully intense look, as if he were living out whole lifetimes with each chordal progression. Offstage, Emmet keeps himself emotionally detached; he derives his greatest solace from shooting rats in a city dump with a .45. In Chicago, when we first see him, he's not above doing a bit of pimping, and he doesn't have a particularly chummy rapport with the other jazz players. Women for him are a way to fill out the hours and strut his stuff.
The amorality of the artist is a rich and resonant subject, but what we see of Emmet's life is too narrowly focused. Except for a brief passage where he talks bitterly about his upbringing, we don't get any real sense of what formed him, or what he's reining in. We're meant to take Emmet as a given, a specimen. Homo jerkus. Allen constructs the film as a biopic, with talking heads such as Nat Hentoff and Douglas McGrath, and himself, blathering on about Emmet like the witnesses in Reds. What great mysteries of personality are being investigated here? Emmet, as a film subject, can't support the scrutiny. In a way, despite Penn's sharp-edged and unsentimental performance and Allen's unblinking directorial gaze, this guitarist is just as diaphanous as Zelig was. He's a cipher who's always just upstaged: Outclassed by the greatness of his idol Django Reinhardt, he's perpetually second-best; when he arrives with big plans in Hollywood accompanied by Hattie (Samantha Morton), the mute laundress who reveres him, it is she who ends up landing big-time movie work (by accident).
Allen invokes his own idols: Deconstructing Harry was configured along the lines of Wild Strawberries, and Sweet and Lowdown is modeled on La Strada, with Emmet as a variation on Anthony Quinn's Zampanò, the strongman who realizes too late the sweet frailty of his waifish adorer. Samantha Morton can be thought of in the same terms as Giuletta Masina's Gelsomina. Her performance seems inseparable from her personality; both are in a state of grace. Allen had a real chance here to get inside the psychology of a man threatened by such grace, who needs to destroy it, or flee from it, in order to live with himself. If the director had gone all the way with the material, surely Morton, with her almost preternatural sensitivities, could have made us feel Hattie's every pang of persecution, equal to Lillian Gish's cowering before Donald Crisp in D. W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (the model for La Strada). And Penn could certainly have made us feel the full self-loathing behind Emmet's bantam strut. Allen opted instead for something far less passionate: a high gloss on a pet theme.