Sean Penn continues his creepy streak

The name of Woody Allen’s new movie, Sweet and Lowdown, may bring to mind poor grade sweetener; this image of false sentimentality remains well after its viewing.

The film follows the life of fictional swing jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, played excruciatingly eccentric by Sean Penn. It picks up his life in small jazz clubs of the Eastern us of the ’30s and follows him through numerous antics and anecdotes across the country.

The audience is well informed of Ray’s peculiarities, from kleptomania to pimping to shooting rats at the nearest dump, but for a character movie, little sympathy is produced for the mischievous musician. Ray’s frequently repeated catch phrases like, "I can’t be tied down–an artist needs to be free," and "I am the best guitarist in the world, except for maybe this gypsy in Europe (Django Reinhardt)," quickly fade from endearing to tiresome. The same is true for the affections and moustache that constitute Penn’s performance.

The tales of Emmet’s life are mildly amusing, but most of the humour is slapstick and unoriginal. Based not on commentary of the character or the times of which he is a product, the jokes are unremarkable at best, good only for a belly groan at their worst.

Much of the movie is devoted to Ray’s relationships with women. Ray proclaims his independence from emotional attachment until he inexplicably marries aristocrat-come-pulp-fiction novelist Blanche (Uma Thurman). Along the way, Ray also picks up and leaves Hattie (Samantha Morton), a gentle and devoted mute who puts up with Emmet’s abuse for love of his music. No reason is given for his romantic decisions. Presumably his inability to release his feelings keeps him from realizing his full potential as a musician and from loving the right woman, but Ray is portrayed so one-sided that what character development eventually attempted fails dreadfully.

The film is shot in Unsolved Mysteries format, cutting to a number of "experts" who relay information and comment on the elusive Emmet Ray between the reenactments. The result is more mawkish than biographical. However, as detestable as his middle age egocentrism is, the funniest moments of the film are given by Woody himself as he wryly comments on the character he created.

The most disturbing parts of Sweet and Lowdown are the musical performances. Disjointed vertical pans from Sean Penn’s pinched face to Howard Alden’s dancing hands are disorienting and way too long. I would more likely believe that Ben Affleck actually saved the world than Sean Penn played the guitar in this movie. Though the music is enchanting, the performances are extremely difficult to watch.

If you like ’30s jazz, skip the movie, go straight to the soundtrack.

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