Sean Penn gives a mannered, showy performance as a Depression-era guitarist in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown. When he’s hunched over his guitar, Penn’s eyes close and he takes on a blissed-out, faraway look. At first, I thought he was transformed by the music he was playing. By the end of the film, when I’d lost patience, he just look stoned.Penn’s Emmet Ray is a fictional character, but Allen intersperses the action with talking head shots of jazz “experts” (including himself) who discuss the sketchy details of Ray’s life. This is just a device to move the story on and it becomes strained because the experts lack genuine enthusiasm for their subject; they’re too hesitant, as if there’s a gun pointed at them off-camera to make them talk.
Ray was an arrogant womaniser, and the film focuses on his relationships with the mute Hattie (an expressive performance from Samantha Morton) and Blanche (Uma Thurman), who marries him because she’s fascinated by celebrity. But the key is Penn’s performance. Initially, I enjoyed the script’s humour and found Penn engaging. But the film hits trouble when you realise that neither the character nor the performance are going to change, and they become wearisome.In Lowdown's favour, Santo Loquasto’s 1930s design work is wonderful. I also loved Fei Zhao’s colourful cinematography. It really opens up the film and makes a nice change for Allen, whose pictures are frequently dark and claustrophobic.