Sweet And Lowdown

Until the latter half of the '90s, Woody Allen's Untitled Fall Project was an annual event worth anticipating, about the closest the movies come to a sure thing. Now, it's cause for serious skepticism. With the exception of the lively but unsavory Deconstructing Harry, Allen has coasted along on recycled gags and thin comic conceits, redeemed mostly (if at all) by a few stellar performances: Mira Sorvino's sweet and casually profane hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold in Mighty Aphrodite, Edward Norton's endearingly clumsy suitor in Everyone Says I Love You, and a welcome bit of self-parody by Leonardo DiCaprio in Celebrity. Allen's latest, Sweet And Lowdown, gives the Broadway Danny Rose treatment to its shambling reminiscences about a fictional jazz-guitar legend in the 1930s, but his collaborators manage to bail him out again. Bathed in the luscious colors of Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei (Raise The Red Lantern) and the enticing shuffle of swing-era standards, the film has more surface appeal than anything the director has made since Manhattan, even if there's virtually nothing going on underneath. Sean Penn does wonders with his role as a mustachioed scoundrel and part-time pimp who uses his exalted status as an artist to justify his self-indulgent behavior. Better still is Samantha Morton as his girlfriend and ideal sounding board, a mute laundress with an expressive face that recalls La Strada's Giulietta Musina in its splendor and pathos. But Allen betrays their performances with half-hearted, episodic sketches that are rarely funny, and his cynical take on being an artist was delivered with more snap in Bullets Over Broadway. As the first film to explore his passion for jazz, Sweet And Lowdown finds Allen content to rifle through his record collection while inertia carries his annual production through the usual paces.

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