Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.19: Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown/Early 2000s Woody

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, 2000’s Small Time Crooks, 2001’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and 2002’s Hollywood Ending.
Sweet and Lowdown Grade: 76 (B+)
It wouldn’t be surprising if a Woody Allen fan just gave up after the twin terrors of Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity. Far worse than his tedious Berman rip-offs, the films showed the writer-director as a bitter, hate-filled old man whose raging misogyny and misanthropy had spiraled out of control. 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, however, is one of the most pleasant surprises in Allen’s filmograhy. The film is a graceful tribute to jazz music loosely inspired by Fellini’s La Strada that contained none of the hateful shrews or vapid sexpots of the worst Allen films, only an inspired love for an era Allen never quite got over.
1930s: Emmett Ray (Sean Penn) believes himself to be the greatest jazz guitarist in the world…except for Django Reinhardt, his idol. Ray’s talent, however, is accompanied by his stupidity, aggression, self-importance, addiction to gambling, an undependable nature. Ray’s greatest love is his guitar, but a few women in his life stand out, most notably Hattie (Samantha Morton), a mute laundress whom Ray takes along on tour, and Blanche (Uma Thurman), a reporter and Ray’s eventual wife.
Emmett Ray is, for all intents and purposes, the ostensible Woody Allen surrogate. He’s filled with neuroticisms, quirks, and obsessions, and it’s easy to see Allen playing a very different version of the character earlier in his career. Rather than doing an insufferable Allen impression (see: Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity), Penn completely reinvents the role into a dynamic comedic performance as a deeply flawed genius (or idiot-savant) who realizes his mistakes in life far too late. Penn’s career over the past decade has been eliant on distracting method acting theatrics and crying jags (a good performance in Mystic River derailed by a few over-the-top scenes, his tone-deaf performance in All The King’s Men, his mannered, impenetrable role in I Am Sam). Aside from his terrific turn in 2008’s Milk, Penn’s performances as of late have been trying way too hard to make the audience feel rather than showcasing his ability to disappear into a character. Sweet and Lowdown, then, is a sign from the time where Penn was one of the most reliably exciting performers around. Equally terrific is Morton in her breakout role as Hattie. Morton’s big eyes and expressive face say more about her relationship to Penn’s character than any monologue could. One might complain that Allen had to create a silent female character to avoid his recent problems with women, but Morton’s Hattie never feels like a simplistic human being. Her wants and needs are clear, and Allen actually cares about what happens to her.
Sweet and Lowdown exhibits a certain easy, graceful style that comes with Allen’s best late-period films (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). The mock-interviews from jazz enthusiasts (including Allen himself)who adore Ray’s work have an certain affability to them that compliments the film’s portrayal of the jazz age. Allen doesn’t delve as deeply into the Depression as he did in The Purple Rose of Cairo, and the film ‘s ending is basically a repeat of Manhattan, but the film is nonetheless one of the most satisfying of Allen’s late-period works (and damn it, that ending is moving anyway).
Small Time Crooks/Hollywood Ending Grade: 40/39 (C)
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion Grade: 29 (C-)
The good news is that Allen’s next three films weren’t disastrous, hateful misfires in the same vein as Deconstructing Harry or Celebrity. Unfortunately, they’re not much of anything else either. 2000’s Small Time Crooks was marketed as a return to the gag-heavy style of the Early, Funny Woody Allen movies. The movie wasn’t any good, but it was a solid hit, so Allen did two more films in its style: 2001’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and 2002’s Hollywood Ending. These films weren’t Woody Allen in his “trying too hard” mode (his Bergman movies, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity), but the sign of Allen not trying at all.
Small Time Crooks focuses on Ray (Allen) and Frenchy (Tracy Ullman) are a couple of working-class New Jersey types (hold your derisive laughter for the moment). Ray has been a complete failure as a criminal in the past and isn’t particularly bright, but he has a plan: Frenchy will run a cookie shop near a bank while Ray and his friends (Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow) tunnel through the ground into the bank. Their plan fails, but Frenchy’s cookies are so good that the business becomes an empire. Success drives the two apart, however, as Frenchy tries too hard to become a member of the upper-class by hanging with stuffy rich people and vying for the attention of art-dealer (I think that’s what he does, anyway) David (Hugh Grant). Ray, meanwhile, begins to see Frenchy’s air-headed cousin May (Elaine May) and plot another heist.
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion shows C.W. Briggs (Allen) as an eccentric insurance investigator who gets along with all of his co-workers except one: efficiency expert Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), a smart, brassy woman whose intelligence and power threatens C.W..Fitzgerald is having an affair with their boss, Mr. Magruder (Dan Aykroyd). Briggs, meanwhile, starts flirting with an heiress (Charlize Theron…hold the derisive laughter, please). When the office goes to see a hypnotist (David Ogden Stiers) for George’s (Wallace Shawn) birthday, the hypnotist makes Briggs and Fitzgerald fall in love when he says the secret words. What the office members don’t know is that the hypnotist is also using those words to control Briggs and Fitzgerald in order to steal precious jewels.
Hollywood Ending follows Val Waxman (Allen), an Oscar-winning filmmaker who can’t get a decent job. He lives with his air-headed actress girlfriend (Debra Messing…please hold the derisive laughter a little longer). When his ex-wife Ellie (Tea Leoni…I know it’s difficult, guys, but hold the laughter) and her Hollywood exec fiancĂ© Hal (Treat Williams) get a great script in their hands, Ellie convinces Hal to give Val a chance. Val hires an Asian cinematographer (Lu Yu) who speaks no English and has to rely on an interpreter (Barney Cheng) to communicate with him. Hal allows it so long as he can finish the film. But when Val’s agent (Mark Rydell) discovers that Val has gone psychosomatically blind, the group must rely on the interpreter, a business student with no filmmaking experience or knowledge, to act as Val’s eyes without giving away that Val is temporarily blind, lest he lose his one last shot at a career.
There’s really no point in going in-depth on any of the films- they have no depth. One can only pick apart why three movies going for nothing but “funny” are anything but:
Small Time Crooks is essentially Take the Money and Run meets The Honeymooners. It’s a passable enough premise, but Allen assembles a strong cast (Ullman, Rapaport, Lovitz, Grant), casts them well, and gives them nothing funny to do (none of the one-liners are memorable). The film’s first act involving the attempted robbery is outright dire, with Allen’s geriatric attempts at comedy serving as a sad reminder of how deft a physical comedian he used to be. The film settles into affable mediocrity in the second half, with Elaine May providing the film’s only laughs (trying to fake illness, she claims to have Ebola). May is a talented enough writer that the film might have been funnier had she served as a second writer as Marshall Brickman, Mickey Rose, or Douglas McGrath had for Allen in the past. Little could have saved the film from Allen’s wild miscasting of himself as a working-class dope who nonetheless talks and acts a lot like Woody Allen. Oh well, at least he doesn’t cast himself against actresses absurdly out of his age range.
The same can’t be said for the lifeless The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, one of Allen’s least engaging films (and his most expensive). Like in Small Time Crooks, Allen miscasts himself as a Bogart-type (or at least I think that’s what the character is written as). To his credit, he claimed he couldn’t find anyone else to play the role. To his discredit, he casts himself alongside Hunt (thirty years younger than him) and Theron (at least forty years younger than him) and has the latter actively lust for him. Allen again assembles a bored looking cast (Theron shows none of the comic timing or energy she did in Arrested Development or Young Adult) and miscasts the contemporary-looking Hunt as a tough-talking 1940s-era Katharine Hepburn type (she looks bored as well), all for a dull caper story. Allen has gone on record to say that he considers this his worst film. No, but it’s one of his least inspired.
Give this much to Hollywood Ending: the idea is funny, and it’s something that the Allen of old would have nailed. The film even manages a few decent lines: Allen mutters “call Dr. Kevorkian” as he views his latest botch of a movie; the film bombs in America, but it’s a hit in France (“Thank God for the French”); Allen reconnects with his ridiculously cartoonish punk-rocker son, who has changed his name to Scumbag X (“I love you, Scumbag”). The film even has some inspired moments involving Cheng as the interpreter. Problem is that Allen ousts the best characters in the film early in the movie to focus on more ridiculous relationships with women half his age (Leoni, Messing). Furthermore, he gives good actors (Treat Williams, Tea Leoni) nothing to do beyond look appropriate for their roles. Allen is more believable as an aging director than as a working class schmoe or tough investigator, but his performance is somehow worse. The physical comedy involving his character is forced and uninspired, and his line delivery too often has him playing up his persona to irritating schtick levels. Allen reportedly wrote the idea for the film, forgot about it, found it years later, and decided to make a movie about it. It’s impossible to say for sure that the film would have been a lot stronger had he shot it those several years before, but yes it would have.
These three films all share a few things in common: they feel like first drafts that Allen finished, said “eh, good enough”, and started filming. Allen’s filmmaking itself is completely disengaged- it barely feels like the same man who made Annie Hall and Sleeper. Allen wasn’t all-out awful with his new films, but mediocre was hardly a substitute.

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