MASKED AND ANONYMOUS
(director/writer: Larry Charles; screenwriters: Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov; cinematographer: Rogier Stoffers; editors: Luis Alvarez y Alvarez/Pietro Scalia; music: Bob Dylan; cast: Bob Dylan (Jack Fate), Jeff Bridges (Tom Friend), Penelope Cruz (Pagan Lace), John Goodman (Uncle Sweetheart), Jessica Lange (Nina Veronica), Luke Wilson (Bobby Cupid), Angela Bassett (Mistress), Bruce Dern (Editor), Ed Harris (Oscar Vogel), Val Kilmer (Animal Wrangler), Giovanni Ribisi (Soldier), Tinashe Kachingwe (Young black girl singer); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Nigel Sinclair and Jeff Rosen; Sony Pictures Classics; 2003)
“The music was fine, the film wasn’t.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Another unsuccessful foray for the aging ‘never say die’ Bob Dylan into films. If I were him, I wouldn’t quit my day job. This film is an embarrassment, there is no kinder way to put it. If it didn’t have so many big name actors, it would seem like a sophomoric venture attempted by some stoners who had nothing to do for a few days but role play. Come to think of it, it still appears that way. Dylan has an itch for films, but the camera is unkind to his skinny ass and the storyline is repulsive and there’s no plot and nothing to take away that is memorable. As Dylan can’t act a lick and is so stuck on being cool that even if he plays himself but as someone who is on the skids, he still gives off ego-tripping vibes. The attempt at black humor and at a touristy political tour of the scarred landscape of an unnamed country, which could be America with the trappings of a Latin American country, with continually failed revolutions and a civil war, gives way after a feeble attempt at being a linear fable into a number of unsightly sight gags, heavy-handed symbolic message, lots of half-hearted gab about revolution and pseudo philosophical drivel, and random skits that take unsportsmanlike potshots at all the historical ducks lined up in the pond. It fails to amount to much, as there are scores of cameos by a variety of actors who do a few non-sequitors and disappear into this incoherent mess without rhyme or reason. While pretending to have Dylan disguise himself as a self-effacing shady has-been folk singer with a pencil thin mustache and a wardrobe of fancy cowboy duds, and with every character mouthing things Dylan might have sung at one time. The hipster legend, a transformed Woody Guthrie folk singer into the rock world of the 1960s and onward, builds an impenetrable shield of nonsense and twisty meanings around himself, seemingly to keep out the flies. The act was so lame it hurt. Dylan uses his hard voice to speak in gruff stilted monotones, only managing to spit out one sentence worth of dialogue at a time when called upon to do his film thing. He aims to show that the world is a heavy place and that everyone would cook the books if they had the chance. He transfers his lifetime of mythological lyrics into the muddled storyline that never hits the mark–though the music was cool, as that’s the one thing the raspy voice legendary figure of another era can somehow still do. But Dylan’s bitterness and cynicism and misanthropic view of the world, was hard to fathom.
Director Larry Charles of Seinfeld notoriety brings only a bucket of chicken to this table and directs as if he had ketchup on his sitcom infected brain. The joke is that the credited screenwriters “Rene Fontaine” and “Sergei Petrov,” are pseudonyms for Bob Dylan and director Larry Charles. Ed Harris must have sensed how bad this was going to be, as he turns up as an Al Jolson-like character in a cameo, where he’s in blackface so he’s not recognizable. To be anonymous in this film is a plus, but to be both masked and anonymous is more than a plus–it’s a blessing.
Oily blue tuxed promoter Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) is in a fictional poverty ridden mythological country that’s meant to be taken for America (filmed in the slums of Los Angeles), that is undergoing a revolution and a divisive guerilla war. Uncle has schemed with the government to let him run a star-studded rock “benefit concert” for an undefined charity, an event the television network has picked up in the hopes of making a big profit. Uncle plans to skim money off the top and handsomely line his pockets, but he runs into some snags when he can’t find any headliner willing to play in this danger zone. Therefore Uncle springs Jack Fate (Dylan) from prison, whom he used to be a manager for. Jack’s a forgotten troubadour, whose career suddenly stopped and nobody cared. Nina Veronica is Jessica Lange, the nasty self-serving controlling TV producer trying to make the event a big world-wide marketing ploy and is Uncle’s dissatisfied partner. She can’t stop berating him for not getting any headliners as promised. Bruce Dern plays a newspaper editor who assigns his cynical investigative reporter Jeff Bridges to cover the benefit story or make one up if he can’t get a real story. Penelope Cruz is Bridges’s fanatically religious girlfriend who goes with him and is constantly in pray. Luke Wilson is a mechanic, who was once a musician with Jack Fate and serves as the trusted disciple who answers his idol’s call by bringing to the benefit the guitar that once belonged to Blind Lemon Jefferson. The film’s real theme should be: when Dylan asks, you drop everything and jump in head first without even reading the script. There is a long list of other noted actors who do a few lines by way of ranting and seem to have no other purpose than being recognized by the viewer: Angela Bassett, Steven Bauer, Michael Paul Chan, Laura Elena Harring, Val Kilmer, Cheech Marin, Chris Penn, Giovanni Ribisi, Mickey Rourke, Richard Sarafian, Christian Slater, Fred Ward, and Robert Wisdom.
The film never amounted to anything. It had one surprising lucid moment of the spirited youngster Tinashe Kachingwe singing ‘Times They Are A-Changin,’ ” and a few respites from the drudgery of this vanity production when Dylan sang with a strong voice and the hodge-podge backup band tightly accompanied him. The music was fine, the film wasn’t. There was nothing interesting about this attempt at an allegory showing a corrupt America. It also lacked any warmth or real humor. It’s a film I would have walked out of, if Dylan wasn’t the star.
REVIEWED ON 10/20/2003 GRADE: D