The product of Woody Allen's lifelong love of jazz, Sweet and Lowdown is as much a continued exploration of the relationship between an artist's private life and his or her professional career -- foregrounded elsewhere in Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity -- as about the music itself. And it doesn't benefit all that much from the extra baggage. The period detail, Sean Penn's tragi-comic characterization, Allen's wickedly funny employment of jazz biography cliches and, of course, fine music all work in its favor. But the central dilemma -- how could such a reprehensible man make such wonderful music? -- remains overstated and overly obvious, even with an abundance of real-life corollaries. (Penn's character, animal cruelty and all, would still make for a preferable dining companion to Miles Davis.) The idealization of Samantha Morton's character, a sainted mute submissive to Penn's neglect, has its creepy undertones as well, offset by Morton's impressive performance, a superb pantomime that lends her character a depth it couldn't have had on the page. A measured success, Sweet and Lowdown's command of its corner of music history, more than its command of its story and characters, suggests that Allen would benefit from a return to the world explored here.
by Keith Phipps review