- Vancouver, British Columbia - In 1969, Woody Allen directed the runaway hit Take The Money and Run, wherein United Artists snapped him up and gave him a contract that allowed him to direct a series of films with almost complete creative control. Allen, a jazz enthusiast, submitted a script called The Jazz Baby that starred himself as a guitarist in the 1930s. UA read the script and balked at it – it wasn’t the comedy they were expecting, but a dramatic period piece. They told him they weren’t interested in pursuing that piece, and Allen continued with comedies.
Fast forward almost thirty years and Allen rewrites the piece, envisioning Johnny Depp and Rosie O’Donnell as the leads. Thankfully, that never came to pass, and the “notoriously difficult” Sean Penn and relative newcomer Samantha Morton were cast. Allen himself is relegated to an interviewee in the piece about the fictitious jazz musician Emmet Ray.
Emmet Ray is the second best guitarist in the world, trailing only his idol Django Reinhardt, of whom he has a pathological fear. His ego is immense, however, and he frequently shows up to gigs late and drunk. His wild spending, incompetent pimping, and shallow womanizing are dominating his life, but he invests emotion into nothing but his guitar playing. One day, he and his drummer are cruising for chicks on the boardwalk when they come across two gals they are both smitten with. After a few minutes, Ray learns his selection is a mute girl named Hattie and is frustrated with his attraction to her. Somehow, the two manage to build a relationship, but Ray can not reconcile his selfish beliefs with his need for someone who genuinely understands him, even though she herself has difficulty expressing it.
Sean Penn Month: Penn received an Acadamy Award nod for his role here, but lost out to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. That was the right call, in my humble opinion. To be honest, I liked Penn in the movie but I didn’t find him that compelling. I liked that there was a coldness in his eyes when he did anything but play his guitar, and I enjoyed the physical comedy he would bring, but when critics are raving about how brilliant he is in this picture I tend to think they’re overstating his performance. Maybe we’re all just too used to “Intense Penn.” That being said, I’m glad he did this role because it WAS nice to see him portray something a little more lighthearted after all the other movies with him I’ve seen lately. Do I think this role could have been played by Depp? Actually, yes. But I’m glad Penn got it.
What I will rave about is Samantha Morton. She got an Oscar nod too, but lost to Angelina Jolie for Girl, Interrupted. Now, I haven’t seen that movie, but it had better be pretty damned good for taking this award away from Morton. For a performance where the actress never utters a word, she deserved it. She’s guarded, but readable. She conveys such a range of emotion, but never once hams it up. Every time she’s on the screen, she demands to be watched. She’s complex though, and you’re never 100% sure what’s going on in her head. You’ll fall in love with her, but not because she’s gorgeous but because she’s a real person that you wish you could get to know. I knew that she was a true gem, and Morton brings that all to the flesh. No disrespect for Rosie, but I simply can’t believe she’d be as good as Morton is.
I kind of dig Woody Allen’s homage to the time, and the lavish lifestyle that celebrities of the time would strive for, so that’s cool to see. The fashion was spot on which is normally something I don’t notice, but in this case it really lent to the moods of the piece. You could tell what sort of day Ray is having based on how he’s dressed, so it sets the stage in a big way. And you can also feel the rift between Ray and Hattie because of how differently they dress (really!).
I’ll also mention that I liked that scene that had three or four different endings, near the end as told by the various narrators. That was pretty classic and I thought the film needed that sort of thing to break some of the tension.
Apart from that, I found the film enjoyable but nothing revolutionary for Penn and Allen. Morton deserves all the accolades here.
Rating: 3/5 Sour Grapes