The Sweet Spot

Woody Allen surprises with the delectable Sweet and Lowdown. Tumbleweeds is gorgeously nuanced.

Sweet and Lowdown

Directed by

Woody Allen
Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by

Gavin O’Connor
Fine Line Features

There are a lot of amazing actors in the world, but with Sean Penn, each performance is amazing in a different way. As Emmet Ray, the fictional 1940s jazz guitarist in Woody Allen’s unexpectedly delectable Sweet and Lowdown, he lifts his voice about an octave and wears a small waxed mustache as if it were a fancy hood ornament. Only the mention of Django Reinhardt–the great gypsy guitarist–pops his bubble of self-worship, sending him into sweats and, in some cases, unconsciousness. The rest of the time he’s a preening cock, fond of quoting (without irony) a rapturous critic: “I’m meee-rac-ulous.” When he plays, he folds himself intimately over his guitar and silently moves his lips, as if whispering sweet nothings to it; Penn’s expression of stewed soulfulness parodies this twerpy egotist and exalts him at the same time. Actually, it’s the music that exalts him: Penn does the intricate finger-work himself, while on the soundtrack, Howard Alden gives the solos a Reinhardt-like mix of limpidness and bite. The idea of a jazz guitarist who’s also a textbook Freudian hysteric–loose and yet focused when he’s onstage, an anxious buffoon when he’s off–has comic poetry built into it, and Penn has radar for both the comedy and the poetry. It’s the way he blends them, though, that is uncanny: He’s like a great jazz artist.

Emmet Ray is the protagonist of Woody Allen’s dreams: a narcissistic shit who’s also an artistic titan. The conceit works better here than in Deconstructing Harry (1997), where the hero–a cross between Allen and Phillip Roth–screwed up his own and other people’s lives but was let off the hook because he brought so much meaning into the world through his books. Frankly, it’s not Allen’s place to forgive himself for all the bad things he has done–or, for that matter, to assess his own talents. With Sweet and Lowdown, he has made the tension between an artist’s work and life more archetypal–and more funny. In mock-documentary fashion, the story of Emmet is relayed by jazz historians and critics–among them Ben Duncan, Nat Hentoff, and Allen himself–who set the scene for hilarious anecdotes about the guitarist’s unreliability, profligacy, and terror of encountering Django Reinhardt. Emmet has an infantile indifference to everyone and everything except his own needs. To women who fall for him he spews such unprocessed bilge as, “I gotta be free; I’m an artist.” But just when you think you’ve had enough of Emmet’s whining, self-aggrandizement, and emotional cowardice, Allen plays a trump card: that beautiful music.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but Sweet and Lowdown feels like penance for Barbara Kopple’s bleak documentary Wild Man Blues (1998), which chronicled Allen’s European tour with his New Orleans-style jazz band. When he watched himself perform in those vast, tony theaters, did Allen think what the rest of us were thinking–that this isn’t how jazz is meant to be heard? The way he shoots the music here is tender and uninsistent; the camera floats past the tables of listeners until it comes to Emmet and his wonderfully pickled look of concentration. The note of satire in Penn’s performance is a hedge against the reverence that dampened such jazz sagas as Bertrand Tavernier’s ’Round Midnight (1986), while the gorgeousness of the playing is a hedge against the satire.

The story takes a moralistic turn: Emmet pays both an artistic and a personal price for not risking more of himself emotionally. But the film doesn’t bog down in loathing (self- or otherwise) the way Allen’s last work, Celebrity (1998), did. He adores this milieu too much–he probably wishes he’d been born into it. And he’s in the buoyant, tall-tale mode of The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). With cinematographer Zhao Fei, production designer Santo Loquasto, and costume designer Laura Cunningham Bauer, Allen re-creates the world of urban supper clubs where gangsters mingle with jazz artists and high-society vamps and where the music itself seems to smooth over class distinctions. Early on, Emmet picks up the tab for a table of tuxedo-clad African-American musicians, then goes home with them to drink and jam. He stumbles back to his hotel via the dump, where he shoots the breeze with hobos and indulges in his favorite form of recreation: picking off rats with his .45. Allen has never made a movie where the jokes seemed so offhand yet so precise–so beat-perfect. He must have wanted to freshen his approach this time out. Why else would this famously settled director pick both a mainland Chinese cinematographer (who reportedly came with a team of translators) and a different kind of lead actor–one who wouldn’t mimic Allen’s diction like Mia Farrow in Purple Rose and Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity?

Of course, there are aspects of Sweet and Lowdown that don’t seem so fresh when you’re out from under its spell. The conception of women, for instance. Allen still thinks along the same lines as in Manhattan (1979), where the open and inarticulate teen-ager Mariel Hemingway stood for purity, a man’s hope of salvation, while such overeducated, older types as Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep (the lesbian ex-wife) were like sucking swamps of neurosis and infidelity. The purity here is embodied by Hattie (Samantha Morton), a mute laundress whom Emmet picks up on a New Jersey boardwalk. The other extreme is represented by Blanche (Uma Thurman), a sleek and edgy sophisticate who has affairs with lowlifes as research for novels. Allen is clearly letting Emmet have a taste of his own medicine–Blanche doesn’t say, “I’ve gotta be free; I’m an artist,” but that’s the implication. The problem is that he can’t bring himself to give Blanche any soul. And what a stroke, making the feminine ideal a mute (who does laundry–always a big plus)!

Allen struck gold when he cast Morton, however. An English actress known for her BBC Jane Eyre (1997) and an incendiary turn in the little-seen Under the Skin (1997), she has a dimpled half-smile, a slightly bobbing walk, and the manner of a pixilated silent movie ragamuffin. The part is all mugging–pulling Harpo-like faces–but Morton turns it into a delicious tease, always seeming on the verge of speech, of saying something naughty or funny or caustic. She appears not to talk because she just thinks better of it. As Hattie gazes serenely on Emmet after their first coupling, he keeps up both ends of the conversation–“Did ya’ like that? I knew you would. … I was 7 when I first had sex …” She worships him and sees right through him, and a part that might have seemed a sentimental contrivance becomes the source of comic bliss.

Sweet and Lowdown is a “small” comedy–it’s monaural, not stereo, and purposefully distant. But it has a touch of magic. At one point, Allen gives you several versions of the same climactic scene (it varies according to the historian), and the effect of all those farcical possibilities is elating: a Rashomon-like sequence where you don’t give a damn what actually happened. Each variation is more entertainingly outlandish, and in the last, when Emmet finally sees Django Reinhardt, Penn caps it with one of the great movie swoons. Everything he does hits the sweet spot.

T he best of many good reasons to see Tumbleweeds is Janet McTeer, who plays a hopeful 40-ish mom who bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend–and state to state–with her cynical adolescent daughter (Kimberly J. Brown) in tow. McTeer, an English actress who won a 1997 Tony award for her Nora in A Doll’s House, gives a performance that is so gorgeously modulated you’ll think she has been in movies all her life. It helps that her character, Mary Jo, is a ham. Fixing breakfast, she dances around the kitchen and sticks her tongue out at her lover, as if razzing her own domesticity. The actress uses her whole slinky frame–lots of leg and lots of cleavage–to show how this busting-out babe is too alive for the blue-collar he-men she takes up with. It’s no wonder that her daughter, Ava–who has the heavy spirit of a child forced to be more farsighted than her parent–gravitates to theater, where one’s exhibitionism can be harnessed. It’s maybe also no wonder that–given where her mother’s feminine instincts have led–she takes the part of Romeo instead of Juliet.

Gavin O’Connor plays the dull-witted trucker who’s Mary Jo’s latest conquest, and he also directed the movie and co-wrote the screenplay with Angela Shelton. (The story is based on Shelton’s “childhood memoirs.”) Beat by dramatic beat, these are some of the most nuanced scenes in a film all year. O’Connor is a fabulous actor’s director. Maybe too fabulous. The actors appear to be entertaining themselves so much that some of the tension dissipates, and the ease with which the movie goes down ends up working against it. Tumbleweeds could use some dissonances. I’m a little fuzzy, for instance, on this family’s finances. They don’t want for food or a roof over their heads, and they end up–with no visible means of support–on a nice little block in San Diego, which isn’t the cheapest housing in the country. I miss the rawness that Gillian Armstrong brought to another mother-daughter story, High Tide (1987). The foundations here are just a little too sturdy; Tumbleweeds seems on the brink of tumbling into a TV series.