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Sweet and Lowdown

Can and should audiences separate the artist from the art? That's the intriguing question at the heart of Woody Allen's latest film, the chamber piece "Sweet and Lowdown."

Whether he was inspired by Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso or someone else, Allen suggests that one might look at what is created apart from who is doing the creation. While there are schools of criticism that would disagree and suggest that a person's private life affects his or her public persona, he makes his point in the person of the fictional Emmet Ray (brilliantly embodied by Sean Penn), the world's second-greatest guitar player behind Django Reinhardt.

Borrowing the convention of his earlier "Zelig," not to mention Warren Beatty's epic "Reds," Allen has crafted a mockumentary in which he and other "experts" (filmmaker Douglas McGrath, journalist Nat Hentoff) offer stories and legends about Ray that are interspersed with scenes from his life. It's a "warts and all" approach to the character that depicts the obscure musician in less than flattering lights, except when he's playing his guitar.

Off stage, Ray is depicted as everything from a kleptomaniac to a pimp, or "manager," as he prefers. His hobbies, the audience is told, were watching trains and shooting rats at dumps -- both of which were his idea of a hot date! But all of his shortcomings are offset by his mastery of the guitar. When Ray plays, he literally transforms (and Penn uses his supple face to reflect that ineffable joy.) For the length of a set, he makes great art. It's when he's not playing that trouble arises.

Allen explores the musician's troubled relationships with the two most important women in his life: his first great love, the mute Hattie (Samantha Morton), whom he treats badly; and his socialite wife Blanche (Uma Thurman), who cheats on him.

Allen has always created fascinating, contradictory female characters, and Hattie and Blanche are no exceptions. Morton brings a sublime grace to a difficult role that calls for her to use her expressive face and body to full effect. That she conveys her longing, disapproval and love for Ray is a tribute to this astonishing rising star.

Thurman once again proves to be a vibrant screen presence. Her entrance enlivens the film, in part because there's a noticeable chemistry between Penn and her. By contrast, Gretchen Mol as the last woman in Ray's life barely registers.

The episodic nature of "Sweet and Lowdown" allows Allen to compose scenes as if they were jazz riffs, even occasionally playing variations on the same incident from different points of view. While the movie isn't in the same class as the director's best work ("Manhattan," "Annie Hall," "Hannah and Her Sisters"), it does provide much to savor: Santo Loquasto's gorgeous period decor, Laura Cunningham Bauer's costumes, the painterly camerawork of Zhao Fei, the terrific soundtrack and, most importantly, the trio of leading actors.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content and some substance abuse.

"Sweet and Lowdown"

Sean Penn: Emmet Ray

Uma Thurman: Blanche

Samantha Morton: Hattie

Anthony LaPaglia: Al Torrio

John Waters: Mr. Haynes

A Sony Pictures Classics presentation. Director Woody Allen. Screenplay Woody Allen. Producer Jean Doumanian. Director of Photography Zhao Fei. Editor Alisa Lepselter. Music Dick Hyman. Production Designer Santo Loquasto. Costume Designer Laura Cunningham Bauer. Art Director Tom Warren. Set Decorator Jessica Lanier. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.