Dylan plays Jack Fate, a long-imprisoned folk singer freed to play a televised benefit concert, staged in a run-down police-state version of America ruled by a sickly tyrant who we hope doesn't die, because a hairy and nearly unrecognizable Mickey Rourke is next in command.
Jessica Lange plays a deathly sexy concert promoter, and John Goodman is a blue-tuxedoed hustler who brings her Fate when Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Sting and Paul McCartney are unavailable. Luke Wilson is Fate's friend Bobby Cupid, Jeff Bridges a journalist named Tom Friend, and Penlope Cruz his ultra-religious girlfriend, who wears a Metallica shirt and has "333" tattooed on her wrist.
Charles, who cowrote the film with Dylan (they used the pseudonyms Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov), is a sitcom director whose resume includes Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. And Dylan himself can be a pretty funny guy, though people tend to parse everything he says in search of profundity. (Sample recent lyric: "Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet / Putting her in a wheel barrow and wheeling her down the street.")
So M&A goes in for slapstick philosophy, with grandiloquent speechifying by Val Kilmer (as an animal lover) or Ed Harris (as a blackface minstrel) punctured by comic patter. "It's hard to get to the top," Bridges says, discussing spiritual and material fulfillment. "There's a long line at the elevator." "That's OK," Cruz replies. "We can take the stairs."
With his pencil-thin mustache and ghostly pallor, Dylan looks like Vincent Price in a cowboy suit. He can't act, which is not as much of a problem as it might be, since he mostly listens. But there are a couple of excruciating scenes (at his mother's grave and with Angela Bassett, who plays his father's mistress) when we're meant to see an emotion, or something, on this face, and there's nothing there.
The music is great. Dylan and his band do a half-dozen songs that crackle with energy - with the highlight an unlikely version of "Dixie." There are also Dylan covers sung in Italian, Japanese and English, and a stirring interlude when Fate rides through a section of Los Angeles to the tune of the haunting "Blind Willie McTell."
Dylan has made a life's work of hiding in plain sight, and while the pointedly titled Masked and Anonymous is rife with riddles and clues, by design it's a Bob Dylan movie - better than Renaldo and Clara, not as good as Don't Look Back - that is structured like a shambling, gnomic Bob Dylan song. And more concerned with confusing the issue of who Bob Dylan is than with making linear sense.
"Sometimes it's not enough to know the meaning of things," Fate says, cryptically. "Sometimes you have to know what things don't mean, as well." Whatever you say, Bob, I mean, Jack.
Contact staff writer Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Masked and Anonymous *** (out of four stars)
Produced by Nigel Sinclair and Jeff Rosen, directed by Larry Charles, written by Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov, photography by Rogier Stoffers, music by Bob Dylan and others, released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 mins.
Jack Fate. . . Bob Dylan
Tom Friend. . . Jeff Bridges
Nina Veronica. . . Jessica Lange
Pagan Lace. . . Penlope Cruz
Uncle Sweetheart. . . John Goodman
Parent's guide: R (profanity, violence)
Playing at: Ritz East