Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bob Dylan, John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Angela Bassett, Steven Bauer, Michael Paul Chan, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Cheech Marin, Chris Penn, Giovanni Ribisi, Mickey Rourke, Fred Ward, Richard Sarafian, Christian Slater, Tracey Walter
Written by: Rene Fontaine, Sergei Petrov (a.k.a. Larry Charles, Bob Dylan)
Directed by: Larry Charles
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language and brief violence
Running Time: 113
Date: 01/22/2003

Masked and Anonymous (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Permanently 'Masked'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Let's assume that there are nine levels of fandom where Bob Dylan isconcerned. Anyone who owns at least Blonde on Blonde automaticallyranks at level two or three. Level nine fans own all the albums (on bothvinyl and CD) -- and the bootlegs -- and have memorized all the lyrics.

Level nine fans are the only ones who will really enjoy the new film Masked and Anonymous.

Simply comparing it to the films Renaldo and Clara (1978) and Hearts of Fire (1987) -- Dylan's previous two acting forays -- will suffice. Both movies have such notorious reputations among lower level fans that they were barely released. Yet true Dylan fans, level nine fans, hunt them down and savor them like rare gems.

These folks will not have much trouble seeing Masked and Anonymous, which opens today in Bay Area theaters. But perhaps lacking the mystery of the previous two films, perhaps because it is so available, Masked and Anonymous will not fare so well.

Indeed, it's a huge mess of a movie, an ugly digital video blob packed full of incomprehensible dialogue and strange characters. At the center of it all is Dylan himself, playing Jack Fate, a cipher of a man who shields his emotions behind a wall of unconnected, mystifying ideas.

To say that it's a bad performance is rather stating the obvious. Dylan is so guarded that we can only look at him with awe as he shambles through his lines and walks around as if the camera were causing him physical pain, like a magnifying glass trying to set him on fire.

His character lives in a kind of alternate reality America, besieged and scalded by war with revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries.

In the midst of this a slick promoter, Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) and his partner Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange), spring him from prison so that he can play a benefit show.

A reporter, Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges) is assigned to cover the concert and find out what may be going on behind the scenes. He brings his girlfriend, Pagan Lace (Penelope Cruz).

Meanwhile, Jack's only friend, Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson) arrives on the scene with a guitar once belonging to Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Admittedly, "Masked and Anonymous is bad in interesting ways; it contains a few memorable, even stunning, moments, such as a little girl singing a powerful a cappella rendition of "The Times They Are A-Changing" -- even if it has no real connection to the rest of the film.

The film also scores points by playing Dylan's achingly beautiful "Not Dark Yet," from his 1997 album Time Out of Mind.

Somehow filmmaker Larry Charles (one of the writers behind "Seinfeld" and "The Tick") lined up a huge list of great actors for cameo roles: Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Cheech Marin, Chris Penn, Giovanni Ribisi, Mickey Rourke, Christian Slater, Tracey Walter and Fred Ward.

But despite a few excellent performances -- notably Rourke -- none of these characters, again, has any real connection to the film. They draw attention to themselves as cameos, characters we know we can't invest in because they'll never be back.

Perhaps the film could have captured some bizarre off-kilter cult vibe if someone like Alex Cox or Rudy Wurlitzer had worked on it, cooking up something with cool anti-establishment attitude, like Repo Man or Two-Lane Blacktop.

As it stands, this puzzler of a movie will leave most people wondering if either they missed something or if, indeed, nothing was there to begin with.

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