(director/writer: Woody Allen; cinematographer: Zhao Fei; editor: Alisa Lepselter; cast: Sean Penn (Emmet Ray), Samantha Morton (Hattie), Uma Thurman (Blanche), Anthony LaPaglia (Al Torrio), Brian Markinson (Bill Shields), Gretchen Mol (Ellie), Vincent Guastaferro (Sid Bishop), James Urbaniak (Harry), John Waters (Club Owner, Mr. Haynes), Nat Hentoff (Himself); Runtime: 95; Sony Pictures Classics; 1999)

“It is a fictional docudrama that smacks of Woody’s playfulness and love for jazz.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A pleasing Woody Allen film that he directed and wrote. It is a fictional docudrama that smacks of Woody’s playfulness and love for jazz, and his inability to tell a straight story. But Woody has the ability to tell a very personal one. The film in many ways is a homage to Woody’s favorite directors Fellini and Bergman. He’s obsessed with them like the Sean Penn character is obsessed in the film with a fellow musician, Django Reinhardt.

The joke that made me laugh the loudest, in a film whose humor is mostly derived from the absurdity of Sean Penn’s portrayal of the musician, was when Sean was bawling the girls out whom he pimped for about not bringing back enough money for him that night and they tell him, what do you expect, it’s a Jewish holiday! It was the timing and the facial expressions coming from Sean Penn that made this kind of joke work.

Casting Sean Penn in the lead as the fictional, flamboyant jazz guitarist, Emmet Ray, was undoubtedly a wise choice. He fits the role remarkably well playing the second-best jazz guitar player in the swing world of the 1930s, who was also a pimp, a drunk, an egomaniac, a wastrel, a kleptomaniac, a womanizer, and an oddball. He was also a great artist, as he explains all his moral deficiencies away by saying: he is an “artist.”

There are some marvelous Sean Penn jazz riffs on the guitar dubbed in by Howard Alden and some musical scores updated from the work of Django Reinhardt by Bucky Pizzarelli. The music was just beautiful and was played often enough, which should be pleasing to the aficionados of jazz.

To give the story an air of authenticity a number of Jazz experts drily add information on the life of the invented second-greatest guitarist in the world, Emmet Ray. One such expert is the current cultural writer for the Village Voice, Nat Hentoff, who plays himself. Emmet’s awe for Django Reinhardt, the French Gypsy guitarist, whom he considers to be the greatest player in the world, borders on hysteria. The only two times he met him, he fainted.

The film relies on the quirkiness of Penn’s performance to get over. It tells of how as an artist he is a natural; but when he is away from his music he is a born loser, messing up his life because he is afraid to fall in love or talk in earnest about himself. He instead is always showing off that he can throw any woman aside. His other peculiarity is to dress outlandishly in outfits that you need to wear sunglasses to kill all the glare. He also has a Hitler-like mustache, making his very expressive facial features flash with moods of sadness and zany mischief. He is not really a good fellow away from his mistress, the guitar. He is much too self-absorbed to care a lick about someone else. His hobbies include: stealing knick-knacks, watching the trains go by and shooting rats in the town dumps.

What changes Emmet’s life for a while and should have made him a happy man, is his relationship with the mute laundress he picked up on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, Hattie (Samantha). But that turned out in the end to be just another mess up. She looks like the silent screen star Mabel Normand, and offers her unconditional love. Her pantomime acting was in the best tradition of silent movies. She also has a most pleasing smile and is a physical person: loving food, sex, and music. That she can hear, which means that she hears all the crude remarks directed at her by him. He cannot open himself up to how he truly feels, but has to put her down constantly. What he is good at, besides playing the guitar, is foolishly spending money. If he sees a flashy car that he likes, he only knows that he wants to buy it. When his manager Sid Bishop (Guastaferro) tells him he can’t keep spending money he doesn’t have and puts him on an allowance, he tells Sid that he wants the car and can save the money — he will reduce his expenses by telling Hattie to cut out desserts.

Eventually dumping Hattie, like he has all his other women, he meets a socialite hussy, in need of inspiration from the artist. Her name is Blanche (Uma). She thinks of herself as a writer, always questioning the inarticulate artist about what he is thinking about when he is performing. On a whim, he marries her and their doomed marriage goes downhill when the unreliable Emmet loses his latest gig because he doesn’t show up. She starts an affair with a gangster (LaPaglia). He’s the bodyguard for the nightclub owner who fired him. When Emmet trails them to follow up on the gossip he hears that his wife is having an affair, several versions are told through the stories the jazz experts heard. All the stories are so far apart that none could be verified by any of the experts; but, what all the stories have in common, is that he hid in the backseat of the gangster’s car and heard for sure that they were having an affair.

In the end Emmet is left alone, not understanding how good he had it until Hattie left. He, at least, realizes this now, but that doesn’t make him a happier person, it is too late for that. The jazz experts tell us that he became a better musician, able to put more of his feelings into the music. Though they have no more stories to tell, as he seems to have disappeared off the face of the map.

Woody’s film is an appealing look back at that age of swing music and it offers, maybe, a composite glimpse of how some jazzmen lived their lives. The great music played includes the following renditions: “Sweet Sue,” “All of Me,” “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” It also brings to the public’s attention a real legend in guitar music, Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist from the Paris of the 1930s-1950s; he played a great guitar despite having lost his fingers in a childhood accident.

REVIEWED ON 2/4/2000   GRADE: B   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/