Directed & written by Woody Allen
It's the 1930s and Emmet Ray is one of the world's best jazz guitarists - second only to 'that gypsy in France'. His favorite pastimes, besides playing the guitar, are shooting rats on the dumpster and trainspotting - in the literal sense, that is. He is socially inept, to put it mildly - he is arrogant bordering on the insufferable, he seems totally incapable of monogamy and is an evident alcoholic. Oh, and he is also a pimp on the side.
The movie is built up more or less like a quasi-documentary, with Woody Allen, Ben Duncan, director Douglas McGrath and jazz critic Nat Hentoff commenting in between scenes. They disclose that there are very few 'facts' to build on, and that the movie is based mainly on myths, gossip and legend - actually, at least one scene is shown in several versions, based on the different stories that allegedly are told about Ray. Brilliant guitar player, womanizer and overall egomaniac Emmet Ray is, however, fictional.
The stories are fascinating nonetheless, especially those of Ray's relationships with the mute Hattie and, not least, with Django Reinhardt. Although never actually seen in the movie, Reinhardt is ever present in the life of Emmet Ray as his only true idol, obsession and eternal nemesis. Also, we are told, Ray met or saw Reinhardt twice when travelling in Europe, and fainted on both occasions. This has, at least by some critics, been connected to the story of Freud fainting when he encountered Jung after their final break.
Allen has stressed the Reinhardt-complex to the max, maybe returning to it once or twice more than strictly necessary for the audience to get the picture. However, the movie is thoroughly enjoyable, even for someone like me who is not really a major string swing fan at all. Samantha Morton's performance as the mute, good-hearted and slightly retarded Hattie is stunning, and Uma Thurman is funny as the author in search of 'real' people with real and rough emotions. It's also a pleasure to see that Sean Penn has turned out to be such a brilliant actor and, indeed, interesting for other reasons than being Madonna's ex-husband (which is, come to think of it, not very interesting at all).
Main cast from imdb.com:
Sean Penn - Emmet Ray
Samantha Morton - Hattie
Uma Thurman - Blanche
Daniel Okrent - A.J. Pickman
Dan Moran - Boss
Anthony LaPaglia - Al Torrio