Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Sweet and Lowdown


I was soon reminded of Zelig, in that this is about a fictional character, a jazz guitar player whose music sounds like Django Reinhardt—and in fact, some of the music is by him—and is interrupted from time to time by commentary by the likes of real people like Nat Hentoff and Woody Allen himself. But it can’t be a bio of Django, because Emmett Ray (Sean Penn, nominated for an Oscar here) considers himself to be the second-best jazz guitarist, and idolizes Django so much that a few times when he actually meets him, he passes out.

His life is a train wreck. (He has two passions other than the guitar: watching trains go by, and shooting rats at the dump.) He’s alcoholic, a gambler, unreliable, spends money he hasn’t got like a drunken Republican president. He meets a mute woman named Blanche (Samantha Morton, also Oscar-nominated), and in spite of himself takes up with her. This is an astounding performance. Not only is Blanche unable to talk, she barely even gestures, seldom doing so much as nodding her head. Yet Morton makes us love her sweet vulnerability. On their first date she goes to bed with him. In fact, she becomes the aggressor, and it’s clear she has done this before and likes it, and is good at it. It’s her means of self-expression.

Emmett treats her shabbily, which is the only way he knows how to treat anyone. They have a series of adventures, including a side trip to Hollywood where she is the one who gets in a movie, not him. Eventually he abandons her for a slumming socialite (Uma Thurman), who he marries. But she soon dumps him, and he returns to Blanche … who is now happily married and a mother. Emmett realizes he has totally fucked up his life, and fades from history. No one knows what happened to him, but we know it couldn’t have been good.

This is an excellent movie, which has only one flaw that I can point out. When Penn is playing the guitar, his fingers don’t have the slightest relationship to the music. I can’t understand why this is, or why Woody allowed him to do it, or why Woody didn’t cover it up by showing his hands only in small, quick shots. It’s very distracting, and all I can figure is that Penn was too lazy to learn some fake moves, as many actors before him have learned on the guitar, piano, clarinet, trumpet, or even the tambourine. Chrissake, I don’t expect him to learn to play, but even I could learn to fake it enough for a movie.