Written and directed by Woody Allen

In the last 30 years, Woody Allen has written and directed something like 28 movies -- "something like" reflects the confusion of how to count his contribution to New York Stories -- a remarkable productivity record for a major filmmaker, and one that's even more impressive when you consider how high his highs have been and how few his lows. One might have thought that the distraction of his public scandals would have slowed him down, but in the '90s he's turned out as many quality films as he did in the '80s, and done even more acting in other people's productions between directorial gigs.

Like most Allen fans, I'd sooner view his work without reference to his personal life, but he doesn't make it easy. Consider this: Sweet and Lowdown is his third film since his breakup with Mia Farrow to revolve around the theme of The Artist as Immoral Schmuck. In Bullets Over Broadway the genius was a murderer; in Deconstructing Harry an incorrigible user who plundered his personal life for material without any consideration for the impact on his friends; and in the new film, an irresponsible, drunken, kleptomaniac pimp. (Even 1980's Stardust Memories, probably the most self-eviscerating film of his prescandal career, dealt more with The Artist as Jerk.)

The paragon in question is Emmett Ray (Sean Penn), a brilliant but stupid jazz guitarist who is so talented that he can eke out a living in Depression America despite his multiple vices. The disparity between his musical talent and his other qualities is so great that the term "idiot savant" would not be totally inappropriate, and, like many geniuses, he is simultaneously completely arrogant and completely insecure. "I'm the greatest guitarist in the world," he is fond of boasting, but with the immediate mumbled disclaimer: "Well, except there is this one guy in Europe, this gypsy named Django Reinhardt." His complete idolization of Django becomes one of the film's funnier running gags.

Allen begins the film in faux-documentary mode, with various jazz scholars and enthusiasts (himself included) testifying to Emmett's brilliance. Any doubts we may have are quickly dispelled with the first number we hear him play -- a gorgeous solo version of "Parlez-Moi d'Amour." (This tune -- also used in Stanley Tucci's 1998 The Impostors, in which Allen had a cameo -- is inexplicably omitted from Sweet and Lowdown's soundtrack album.)

Emmett's nonmusical life consists of drinking, shooting rats in junkyards, watching trains, running whores and picking up women for one-night stands. His only bit of sympathetic emotion shows when he meets Hattie (Samantha Morton), a mute who falls in love with him. Hattie is alleged to be "slow," though it seems pretty certain that she's handily brighter than Emmett. (One remembers the claims made by Allen's adversaries that Soon-Yi was somehow mentally deficient -- rumors put to rest by Barbara Kopple's documentary Wild Man Blues.) Hattie becomes Emmett's nurturer; she stirs within him a love he doesn't know how to handle and clearly represents his one chance at personal salvation, a concept that scares him to death. He later takes up with a woman who is Hattie's opposite -- Blanche (Uma Thurman), a stylish, well-to-do pseudo-intellectual, is at least as impressed by Emmett's crudeness as she is by his genius.

Sweet and Lowdown falls somewhere in the upper-middle rank of Allen's films: No, it's not Manhattan or Purple Rose of Cairo or even Bullets Over Broadway, but it is engaging, touching, and frequently funny. Maybe because his hero is inarticulate and his heroine is mute, Allen relies far more than usual on physical comedy than on the verbal jokes that are his strongest comic suit.

Not surprisingly, Penn is first-rate as a heel who can't deal with his own best instincts. He's also extremely convincing as a musician: Early on, Allen makes sure we see Penn's face and his fretwork in continuous shots to give the illusion that he's really creating the music. That said, a huge amount of credit should be given to guitarist Howard Alden, who actually plays the tunes that are crucial to the film. Music is all Emmett's got; were Alden's solos not so entrancing, Emmett would be just another irritating Joe.

The film's central concern is reminiscent of Amadeus, but its blend of emotion and humor owes a lot more to Chaplin -- more specifically, Chaplin by way of Fellini. Allen has drawn on Fellini before in Alice, Radio Days and, most blatantly, Stardust Memories. Here he follows the basic emotional structure, if not the plot details, of the Italian master's La Strada, though it must be added that Emmett isn't quite as brutal a bastard as Anthony Quinn's Zampano. Twenty-two-year-old British actress Morton, meanwhile, has a waiflike smile every bit as effective as Giulietta Masina's in La Strada; the unsentimental poignancy of her performance is what makes Emmett's bad traits more than mere comic abstracts. Together with Allen, Penn, Alden and cinematographer Fei Zhao, she gives Sweet and Lowdown its emotional power.

Opens Jan. 21 at the Plaza Frontenac.