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Riff and Ready

An increasingly bitter Woody Allen releases Sweet and Lowdown.

The besmirched hero of Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen's valentine to swing-era jazz and the furies of creative temperament, is a fictitious '30s guitarist called Emmet Ray. Self-absorbed but brilliant, crass but lyrical, Emmet is the embodiment of the notion that a great artist needn't be a good guy or a model citizen -- that the beauty of the work simply outranks the ugliness of the personality. In fact, peerless egoists like Mozart and notorious bastards like Evelyn Waugh (not to mention the more difficult personages of the jazz world) could probably learn a few things about bad behavior from this Emmet. For starters, he's a liar, a cheat, a braggart and a drunkard. He shows up late for jobs or not at all, and his unimaginative ideas about relaxation include watching freight trains and driving out to the nearest garbage dump to shoot rats. Asked what he thinks about when he's playing, he barks: "That I'm underpaid!"

But my, oh my, set Emmet Ray loose on "Limehouse Blues" and he'll break your heart with the glitter of his arpeggios. Only the legendary gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, Allen tells us, is Emmet's equal, and only the haunting Django makes Emmet think twice about his exalted place in the world. Otherwise, this self-proclaimed "great artist" tramples the feelings of all in his path, steals knickknacks from the living rooms of friends, gloats when he beats the rubes out of first prize at a small-town amateur night. With his hawk-like eyes, hair-trigger nerves and smug little mustache, this mean-spirited angel is a vivid portrait of vanity and carelessness and native genius. He is played to perfection by a strutting, preening Sean Penn, right down to the accuracy of the guitar fingerings. Around his protagonist, Allen builds up an entire mythology: Assorted jazz critics and historians (one played by Allen himself) keep popping up on screen to tell real or apocryphal Emmet Ray stories, as if he were Jelly Roll Morton or Charlie Parker.

It doesn't take a team of philosophers to see some of the things Allen is getting at here. Ever the navel-gazer, in his waning middle age, he can't help weighing in on the nature of art, the behavior of artists and (like it or not) the grievous errors human beings make. Sweet and Lowdownis buoyed up by absolutely gorgeous period jazz -- pianist Dick Hyman served as arranger and conductor, and the versatile guitarist Howard Alden ghosted Penn's playing -- but it may be the least humorous, most bittersweet Woody Allen movie this side of Interiors. The director manages to crack wise here and there, especially through Uma Thurman's Blanche, a florid ex-debutante with a hilarious gift for amateur headshrinking. "What do you think about when you kill?" Blanche asks Anthony LaPaglia's mobbed-up club owner. But the comedy is muted, and the very look of the film is somber: It was shot, it turns out, by the great Chinese cinematographer Shao Fei, best known in this country for his exquisitely moody work on Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern. Meanwhile, you can't help noticing the depth of critical analysis Allen applies to himself.

It wouldn't do to take him too literally, of course. As the aforementioned Mr. Waugh once pointed out, the nature of fiction dictates that "I am not I; you are not you; they are not they." But Emmet Ray is probably the closest thing to a searing self-portrait Allen has produced in his 35-year career as a filmmaker. For one thing, this anti-hero is a white, pre-bebop jazz musician, a calling that Allen obviously admires, if we can judge by the long years he's put in tootling the clarinet on Monday nights. For another, Emmet's blinkered self-absorption gives way, in the course of these 95 minutes, to lonely torment, a state of mind Allen has often ascribed to himself. After burning his bridges and abandoning the one woman who really loves him, Allen's Allenesque protagonist vanishes into the vapors of jazz legend, having left behind, we are told, a treasure trove of melancholy last recordings that are the measure of his hard-won maturity and even-harder-won self-knowledge. It's a preciously romantic idea, drawn from the mythologies of Billie Holiday and Lester Young and -- who knows? -- perhaps from the mythology of Woody Allen himself. If he were to now abruptly stop making movies, fans couldn't say they weren't warned.

The other major oddity here -- make of it what you will -- is the characterization of the leading lady. It won't occur to many viewers that Hattie, the innocent laundress who falls for and devotes herself to Emmet Ray, is portrayed by the doelike and distinctly British actress Samantha Morton. Because she never says a word. Allen has taken refuge in the past before, in projects as various as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets Over Broadway, but this is the first time he's indulged a fantasy about silent, simple women. Sweet Hattie is not deaf, but she is dumb, and that's just the way Emmet Ray likes her. She cannot easily interrupt his tirades or counter his bluster, and when the time comes to abandon her, he does it without a thought. Afflicted with the "ego of genius," Emmet can feel pain only for his music -- at least until he realizes what he's thrown away. Another self-reference or a figment of imagination? Some of each, it would seem.

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