A faux biography of jazz guitarist Emmet Ray, constructed through a string of outrageous gags, gigs and misbehavin'.
Woody Allen's most delightful film in perhaps ten years - and he's made some real treats in that time - takes the form of an anecdotal "biopic" which, in creating a fictional musician as its subject, celebrates music and all the maniacs who make it best through a string of outrageous gags, gigs and misbehaving.
Jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Penn) may not be real, but he is so painfully and hilariously truthful that he is in many ways every flamboyant, iconic tune peddler from Mozart to Madonna. Certainly he's an amalgam of any number of jazzers, and Penn - Oscar-nominated - captures the spirit just brilliantly. His Emmet is colourful, pathetic, self-obsessed, a feckless, reckless monster without even being aware of it; and crucially, if amazingly, endearing. He also presents a credible guitarist, faking his way through a cleverly used vintage songbook which includes gems by Duke Ellington and Emmet's idol, Django Reinhardt.
Also superb is Samantha Morton, whose speechless performance (which also brought her an Oscar nomination) as the waifish, adoring, mute little laundress who endures Emmet's abuse, is staggeringly expressive, touching and hits rib-tickling heights when Hattie gets a shot at the big screen in a silent movie. Uma Thurman is straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald here, well-suited to the glamour of a madcap sophisticate toying with dangerous men.
The insertion of documentary-style interviews (with Allen himself and other jazz buffs) suggests that Emmet's self-inflicted chaos is running out of steam, but the device pays off when the narrators' conflicting accounts of an infamous "Emmet and the gangster" incident set up three wildly different, marvellously choreographed versions of the anecdote.
Fantastic performances from Penn and Morton ignite this bittersweet comedy.