BACK STAGE WEST
March 2, 2000
If Woody Allen has a cult among moviegoers (and, since the whole Mia/Soon-Yi debacle, an anti-cult), he famously has a cult among actors, as well. In the 1980s and early '90s, "Woody Allen" was among the de rigueur answers when a reporter asked an actor, "Who would you most like to work with?"
Allen has apparently cashed in on this widespread desire in spades, with nearly annual films whose casts are like roll calls of screen giants, box-office stars, stage veterans, personal favorites, flavor-of-the-month ingenues--in short, an embarrassment of acting riches. It's most embarrassing when the film is a trifle that wastes fabulous talent--the star-strewn Celebrity, the heavyweight cast of Shadows and Fog--but when it's one of Allen's great films, like Bullets Over Broadway or Crimes and Misdemeanors, or simply an enjoyable one, like Everyone Says I Love You or Mighty Aphrodite, it's exhilarating rather than distracting just to savor the well chosen, well-matched cast, as if Allen were a one-man studio system that happened to have on contract everyone from Julia Roberts to Jerry Orbach, from Alan Alda to Dianne Wiest.
He doesn't, of course, and a lion's share of the credit for sifting through the mass of actors-who-want-to-work-with-Woody and creating the often perfect world of his films, whether they're contemporary or in period, is Juliet Taylor--a giant in her field not only for her 30 films with Allen but to her work with such directors as Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, Stephen Frears, and Alan Parker.
Last year's jazz valentine Sweet and Lowdown is not only Allen's best film since Bullets, it's the most felicitously cast of his films since Husbands and Wives paired Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis as high-strung, bickering marrieds. Indeed, top to bottom, Sweet and Lowdown is a model illustration of what sets great casting apart from good casting: Taylor, credited with her associate Laura Rosenthal, hasn't just matched actors and characters in ways that seem merely appropriate but in ways that are surprising, daring, and inevitable.
As the shambling idiot savant Emmet Ray--a fictional 1930s guitarist with whom Allen illustrates a flipbook of hilarious, pathetic shaggy-dog jazz folklore--Sean Penn is a revelation in a role that provides great opportunities for physical comedy and for desperate acts of self-destruction, but little room for the sort of meaty, mapped-out character arc of most Oscar-baiting star turns. With his dimwit charm and ill-managed bluster, Sean Penn's Ray is reminiscent of Fast Times' Spicoli--if Spicoli thought he was a cross between Clark Gable and Django Reinhardt. To match the mighty Penn with the two-bit Ray is an inspired choice that elevates both, and the film with it.
In Sweet and Lowdown's other attention-getting (and Oscar-nominated) performance, Samantha Morton is a find, a seemingly pure acting talent out of England who previously lent her unfussy, plain/pretty presence to the usual period vehicles (Emma, Jane Eyre). Here, as a mute, slightly retarded young woman with whom Emmet plays house for a bittersweet while, the spindly Morton is luminous without being flashy, recalling without a word of dialogue Mia Farrow's heartbreaking work in such films as The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Taylor and Rosenthal's unstinting acumen didn't stop with the leads: As a mildly pretentious socialite authoress, svelte and shallow Uma Thurman has never been better cast, and almost the same can be said of Anthony LaPaglia, an effortless blend of cocky courtliness and sweatless intimidation in a small role as a gangster. The likes of John Waters and Brad Garrett make non-distracting, nicely proportioned cameos as managers who've had enough of Emmet and are firing/kicking out/not paying him for his misbehavior.
From these flustered bosses to his reticent, unglamourous bandmates to the brassy molls Ray either flatters or offends, the film is perfectly populated to suggest a second-string jazz circuit outside the glitter and buzz of the urban nightlife (indeed, it's one of the few Allen movies not set on the island of Manhattan). If the film's milieu has a distinctly Middle American flavor one doesn't associate with Allen, Taylor and Rosenthal deserve credit for their taste.