Woody Allen makes movies at such a hectic pace -- and lately with such forgettable results ("Celebrity," "Deconstructing Harry," "Everyone Says I Love You") -- that it came as something of a pleasant surprise when the filmmaker's latest effort landed Oscar nominations in two acting categories. The attention is deserved: Sweet and Lowdown, Allen's most accomplished movie since 1994's "Bullets Over Broadway," is Allen's idealized imagining of an era that produced so much of the music he cherishes. It's alternately funny and sad, and absent of the brittle, vulgar edge that has characterized much of the director's recent, ill-fitting work.
Sean Penn turns in a masterfully shaded performance as fictional '30s guitarist Emmet Ray, a brilliant instrumentalist and careless lover. He's the quintessential artistic genius and social flake, unable or unwilling to commit to anything except the leadings of his muse.
Emmet knows how to tease great beauty out of his instrument. In faux-documentary clips, Allen and real-life jazz expert Nat Hentoff wax lyrical about the performer, and we hear the reason why when the guitarist unreels "All of Me," "I'll See You in My Dreams" and other standards. The music (played by guitarists Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli, and arranged by Sarasota-based pianist and long-time Allen collaborator Dick Hyman) thrills Emmet's audiences and pleases club owners. We're convinced, too: Alden taught Penn how to play, and the music matches what the actor does with his fingers.
He's a "lowdown" character as well, a drunk and kleptomaniac who "manages" hookers as a way to supplement his income.
Sweetness and light come Emmet's way at the Atlantic City boardwalk, where he meets mute, slightly built Hattie (Samantha Morton), a blue-collar worker who rapidly warms to the affections of the traveling musician. British-born Morton is a wonder, as Hattie's personality is revealed with the subtleties of facial expressions and body language.
Emmet's journey takes him down a path littered with the likes of Blanche (Uma Thurman), a socialite groupie who compliments the musician on his "genuine crudeness," and a small-time gangster played by Anthony LaPaglia. But Emmet never makes a connection as heartfelt as the one he shared with Hattie, and Allen has seldom staged scenes as affecting as those between the two outsiders lovingly brought to life by Penn and Morton.