Sweet and Lowdown
A surprisingly gentle and sincere homage to a too-little-known quarter of jazz musicians from the 1930s, Sweet and Lowdown is Woody Allen's best and most likable film in years. Sean Penn (full of grimaces and tics and a surprising skill for fake strumming) plays the fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, a first-class jerk who also happens to be a musical genius, making him the second-best player in the world behind the eminent (and real) Django Reinhardt. Emmet's not shy about his talent (repeatedly pointing out to all who will listen that he is an Artist), but his off-stage time is spent pimping, hustling pool and shooting rats down at the garbage dump. Tactless, tasteless, and vain, Emmet proves to be catnip to the ladies, including Hattie (Samantha Morton, touchingly memorable), a sweet mute with a guileless face and wise eyes, and socialite Blanche (Uma Thurman, sleek and fine like a vintage '30s star), who dedicates herself to the study of brilliance. Allen seems to be acknowledging that artists can be schmucks yet still make create greatness, but this time, he's pleasant enough not to force anyone to draw conclusions about art imitating life.