Published Feb 01, 2000Over the years, Woody Allen has developed such an uncanny ease with storytelling and narrative structure that at this point in his career he seems to be deliberately putting hurdles in front of himself to keep things interesting. His casts keep getting bigger and his multiple story-lines are interwoven with increasing deftness and complexity. It's a bit of a disappointment that in his new film Sweet and Lowdown, he seems to have hit the wall, and the result is kind of a botched job. It's a biographical character sketch of jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) and it combines documentary commentary from writers, musicians, and even Woody himself, with anecdotal segments illustrating Ray's life and career. Although Emmet Ray played the guitar with great soul and finesse, he was, apparently, a complete horror of a human being. Early scenes establish that he was a pimp, a kleptomaniac, and that his idea of a fun date was going to the garbage dump to shoot rats. As colourful as these details are, Ray's life story remains quite formless and meandering. Allen does his best to create some dramatic structure, but the third act takes a nose-dive with a train-wreck of a performance from Uma Thurman, and an ending that ineffectually strains for some kind of poignancy by resorting to a crane shot (a first for Allen). There's always something to love in any Woody Allen movie, and here it's the plucky chemistry between Sean Penn and Samantha Morton as his mute girlfriend, Hattie. They're a perfect match - he's cranky and eccentric, and she's happy, bright-eyed, and unflappable. She has to communicate with him by writing on scraps of paper that he can never quite decipher, but when Emmet plays his guitar, the communication barrier between them is broken. The Pavlovian effect that his music has on Hattie's sexual appetite is even a little more than he can handle.