"Sweet and Lowdown" is hardly groundbreaking material, and on whole, the film may not quite stack up with his best work. But it has to be considered at least a minor comeback for Woody Allen.
Of course, there's no telling how much of that can be attributed to the fact that he finally seems to be getting away from the nihilism and self-loathing that spawned such hard-to-sit-through works as "Deconstructing Harry" and "Celebrity."
And again, it's hardly a career highlight at least for Allen. But thanks to the lighter tone, as well as the terrific jazz-era music and the even more terrific performances, "Sweet and Lowdown" is just charming enough to get by.
Working completely in color this time a surprising choice given that much of the material is set in the 1930s Allen tells the tale of fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Oscar nominee Sean Penn).
Plagued by peccadillos (among them gambling and womanizing), as well as self-doubt, Emmet is just getting by.
Sure, he's finding work at clubs, but he also goes from one destructive relationship to another. But that seems to change when he meets Hattie (Oscar nominee Samantha Morton), a sweet-natured, slightly dim mute who quickly latches onto the the egotistical musician.
But professional jealousy comes between them on a trip to Hollywood. Hattie is "discovered" by a movie producer, while Emmet goes virtually unnoticed. And even though she returns to Chicago with him, Emmet's fight-or-flight instincts soon take hold, and it's off to another relationship.
The other risky move Allen makes here is telling the story in pseudo-documentary style, with real-life jazz experts and Allen himself interrupting scenes with commentary about Ray. It's not always successful, though, and the whole thing nearly grinds to a halt in the final third, with the introduction of a journalist, played (badly) by Uma Thurman.
Fortunately, she doesn't do too much damage, and besides, Penn is so good that he overshadows her anyway. Of course, Penn is nearly upstaged by Morton, whose wordless performance is more difficult and possibly more impressive.
"Sweet and Lowdown" is rated PG-13 for violence (gunplay, some animal cruelty), scattered profanities, simulated drug use (opium and marijuana) and a sexually suggestive conversation.