There was once a time, seemingly not that long ago, when the latest Woody Allen film was a highly anticipated event for critics and fans of well made, if occasionally quirky films. After all, the writer, director and star of films such as "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and her Sisters" has racked up an impressive total of twenty-two Oscar nominations (with two screenwriting wins and a Best Picture win for "Annie Hall").
Yet as is the case with most every actor, musician or performer, one cannot forever stay at the pinnacle of success, and Allen's had his own run-in with bad times. Not only have audiences seemingly tired of the "same old" Woody Allen shtick, but controversy surrounding his relationship with his stepdaughter, Soon-Yi, as well as diminishing box office returns have turned the once popular filmmaker and star into something of a has-been. His latest writing and directorial effort, "Sweet and Lowdown," isn't about to change any of that.
A faked documentary style piece about a fictional jazz guitarist, the film features a fine performance from the lead actor, Sean Penn, as well as some toe-tapping, jazz riffs and an overall, great-sounding score. Otherwise, however, this is a small and, for the most part, inconsequential effort.
Documentaries or dramatizations about real musicians aren't a new thing, and even mockumentaries - the faked ones such as the highly entertaining "This Is Spinal Tap" - aren't that uncommon anymore either. Although this one falls into a serious version of that second category, Allen - known for his love of jazz and using that type of music in his films -- doesn't push that notion to its fullest extent.
Starting with some filmed interviews of himself and other "experts" on the world of jazz and the fictional guitarist - that also occasionally later pop during the film - Allen uses such pieces merely to introduce and otherwise bookend the flashbacks that then follow. Unfortunately and unless you're a fan of the jazz guitar, what develops isn't particularly intriguing or entertaining, notwithstanding the inherent entertainment value of simply listening to the music.
As with most such films, the featured musician is a troubled and tortured sort that makes one wonder if the "Beaver Cleavers" of the world, with their low-key, uneventful childhoods, will ever have a shot at becoming artists. As marvelously portrayed by Sean Penn ("The Thin Red Line," "Hurlyburly"), the character here has all sorts of interesting and mildly entertaining quirks, such as a limited capacity of where to take dates (either to the train yard or the dump to shoot rats).
Being the second best guitarist in the world, he also has a paranoid preoccupation with the man who's number one - in this case the real Django Reihhardt - and that provides for a few funny moments. Beyond that, however, the film never really goes anywhere.
With a fragmented and episodic story structure - which isn't uncommon for this genre - Allen doesn't allow the film to build up any cumulative energy or emotional involvement with the audience. Other than a few occasional moments, Allen's normally sharp dialogue is similarly rather flat, making the performers such as Penn and his supporting cast pretty much carry the film themselves.
For the most part, they manage to do just that. No stranger to playing offbeat and/or volatile characters, Penn is quite good as the egotistical but neurotic musician. Playing the character with the appropriate nuances and tics, as well as doing a decent if not always entirely credible job faking the guitar work (with Allen not helping matters by often keeping the camera off his fingers - with the actual sounds coming from guitarist Howard Alden), Penn's performance is what makes the film work.
Supporting performances are good, but suffer from a limited amount of time on the screen. Given the most of that but obviously the least amount of dialogue is Samantha Morton ("Under the Skin," TV's "Jane Eyre") as Emmet's mute lover, Hattie. Needing not worry about dialogue is both a gift and a nightmare for performers (not having to remember dialogue but consequently having to impart everything through straightforward acting), but Morton makes the most of the situation and creates a lovable and sympathetic character.
Meanwhile, both Uma Thurman ("The Avengers," "Gattaca") and Anthony LaPaglia ("Commandments," "Trees Lounge") do good jobs playing the slinky writer and a tough guy respectively, but they show up late for the dance and don't stick around very long.
While the film isn't horrible by any means, and with a running time of just over an hour and a half it may never get tedious, it simply never captures the viewer's imagination or heart. Without those, the film only comes off as moderately enjoyable and doesn't do any good for returning Woody Allen and his films to their former limelight. As such, we give "Sweet and Lowdown" only a 5 out of 10.