Masked and Anonymous
Rated PG-13, 107 min. Directed by Larry Charles. Starring Bob Dylan, Jeff Bridges, Penélope Cruz, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Christian Slater, Val Kilmer, Angela Bassett, Giovanni Ribisi, Mickey Rourke, Chris Penn, Cheech Marin, Ed Harris, Bruce Dern, Richard Sarafian, Fred Ward, Robert Wisdom, Tinashe Kachingwe.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 22, 2003
Bob Dylan might have been wrong when he sang that "there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all." His new movie, although a complete narrative mess, is a thoroughly Dylanesque escapade – an imagistic, aphoristic reverie that exposes and obscures its maker in the same oblique fashion that has served him so very well all these 40-some years. This review is not the place to defend or criticize Dylan’s extensive body of work, but let’s just say that if you don’t like what he does with a tune and a turn of phrase, then you really won’t like what he’s put up on the screen. Dylan has always had a hard time whenever he’s strayed from the music arena. Although his appearance in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid might be his acting high point, efforts like his self-penned movie Renaldo and Clara and his novel Tarantula have met with more mixed, and largely disparaging, responses. Masked and Anonymous is like a shadow play of one of Dylan’s more apocalyptic song visions or the narrative fragments of Tarantula. The movie has snatches of plot, characters, and motivations, but not enough to make it fully cogent and accessible to the viewer unschooled in Dylanology 101. But what it lacks in story development, it more than makes up for with momentary pleasures and passing epiphanies. It’s a Pandora’s box of Dylan’s back pages of word games and mind games and visionary tableaus. The credited writers, Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov, are (wink, wink) pseudonymous fronts for the artist known as Bob Dylan, and director Larry Charles is best known for his work on Seinfeld and Larry David’s follow-up show Curb Your Enthusiasm. And look at the cast – a whole host of top-name celebs have fallen all over themselves to score roles in this Dylan movie, screenplay be damned. Masked and Anonymous is set in some kind of fictional America, riven by civil war and chaos and looking more like a lawless banana republic than the home of the free and the brave. Amid the widespread pandemonium, two old-school concert promoters – Uncle Sweetheart (Goodman) and Nina Veronica (Lange) – try to mount a televised benefit show to help the revolutionaries as well as line their own pockets. Their star (and only) performer is the legend from another era, Jack Fate – an imprisoned troubadour played by Dylan, who carries the burdens of a man pegged as "the voice of his generation." Wilson plays Fate’s old roadie, Bridges the newspaper reporter poking around the story, and Cruz the reporter’s prayer-obsessed girlfriend. The viewer is able to follow along all right but will always feel as though a few salient bits of information are missing. The film functions as though it were a song, one of those 20-minute-long story songs of which Dylan has been so fond. Yet the film’s problem is exactly that: It is not a song. Movies are much too representational and finite to accommodate the Möbius strips of Dylan’s language. In fact, the songs – of which there are many – make up some of the movie’s highlights. The Jack Fate cover band, A Simple Twist of Fate (among whose members is Charlie Sexton), provides terrific accompaniment, and the movie’s finest moment might possibly be the a cappella version of "Times They Are A-Changin’" sung by young Tinashe Kachingwe. What does Masked and Anonymous ultimately mean? Jack Fate and Bob Dylan would say, "The answer is blowin’ in the wind." (See this week's Screens section for an interview with director Larry Charles.)