'Masked': Riddled With Dylan

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2003

What, exactly, is "Masked and Anonymous"? A biting social satire or a wrenching apocalyptic allegory? A worthy work of art or an inside-Hollywood vanity production more along the lines of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?" A brilliant evocation of Americana or the solipsistic complaint of a disillusioned artist?

It's all of the above. Which also happens to be the appropriate response to so many questions about the film's star, muse and driving creative force. Is Bob Dylan a prophet or a seeker? An elusive, press-shy artist or a genius of self-mythology? An oracle or a cipher-like screen for his audience's deepest projections? Poet or showman? Christian or Jew? Voice of a generation or Victoria's Secret shill?

He is, or has been, all of those things, of course. And practically every shard of what we have thought of as the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman is on hand in "Masked and Anonymous," a fascinating, vexing, indulgent, visionary, pretentious, mesmerizing pop culture curio. Directed with uneven success by Larry Charles from an incomprehensible script that he wrote with Dylan, "Masked and Anonymous" is a kaleidoscopic journey through America on the eve of destruction, a multi-culti, postmodern, polyglot bazaar of greed, venality, violence and dispossession. In an indeterminate future, the country is in the throes of a corrupt revolution that itself is in the midst of an anxious transition. Law has broken down, morality has disintegrated, people are on edge. This being America, it's the perfect time to put on a show.

Enter Jack Fate (Dylan), a once-legendary singer who's just been released from a Mexican jail and whose sleazy manager, Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman), has arranged for him to headline a benefit concert for a worthy cause mostly having to do with Uncle Sweetheart's deals. The woman in charge of broadcasting the concert on television is a high-strung producer named Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange), a direct descendant of Faye Dunaway's character in "Network," whose hobbies are smoking and busting men in the nether regions.

As Fate prepares for his performance, he crosses paths with all manner of desperadoes, hucksters, true friends and one Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges), a journalist whose inane questions and prying insinuations might have been modeled on the subject of Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man." Most happily, he meets up with a Jack Fate cover band -- called, what else, Simple Twist of Fate -- which comprises the prodigious real-life musicians Dylan has been touring with in recent years: Tony Garnier, George Receli, Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton. Occasionally Fate and his musicians break into the tight, lyrical renditions of the endless repertoire they've been performing of late, giving viewers and fans respite from the talky, hyperactive goings-on backstage.

What "Masked and Anonymous" is about is something of a mystery, although religion, politics, sex, war and the wages of fame might be a start. Primarily, it's about Bob Dylan who, as in his past screen appearances, isn't an actor here as much as a presence. With his vintage country-western suit, his odd, shuffling trot and Clifton Webb mustache, he's still a timeless and transfixing performer, whether he's uttering one in a series of gnomic pronouncements or engaging in the punning, cornball humor that he favors in his stage patter.

If "Masked and Anonymous" is a vanity production, that's not necessarily a problem -- Dylan fans are always grateful for the chance to pin their protean idol to the velvet for a closer look. And Charles and his design team have created a stunning, vivid vision of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, which has become a ragtag palimpsest of languages, cultures, races and shifting power groups. Layered both visually and aurally with the vestiges of a still-recognizable past, "Masked and Anonymous" has a peculiarly anarchic energy and authenticity. (Particularly fabulous are the foreign-language covers of Dylan classics that compose the soundtrack, from a Japanese version of "My Back Pages" to a Turkish singer performing "One More Cup of Coffee.")

What's distracting and irritating about the production is the endless parade of actors who show up even for the briefest of appearances; Penelope Cruz and Luke Wilson are on hand in supporting roles, but look -- there's Val Kilmer and Ed Harris and Mickey Rourke! And Angela Bassett and Bruce Dern and Chris Penn! And Cheech Marin and Christian Slater and Giovanni Ribisi! These self-conscious cameos do nothing but take viewers out of the world Charles and his team have so ingeniously created, as do the inside jokes and Dylan quotes that pepper the cross-talk and background scenery. That distance isn't helped by the purposely dense script, which is at once overburdened by endless self-important chatter and a pervading sense of ennui. It's here that Charles, a longtime TV director making his feature debut, seems to lose control of the production; with its cardinal themes of race and cultural history and its densely layered plots and characters, you can't help wondering what "Masked and Anonymous" would have become in the hands of, say, John Sayles.

Fans hoping that "Masked and Anonymous" will be the Rosetta stone for Dylan's most enigmatic musings will most likely be disappointed. He's made a film that, for all of its references to his discography and career, winds up being as elliptical as its elusive star. Does he want to spurn those who still look to him for answers after four decades? Or is he still expecting us to ask? As the film's final scene suggests, the answer, my friend, is -- well, you know.

Masked and Anonymous (113 minutes, at Cineplex Odeon Dupont) is rated PG-13 for some language and brief violence. It will open on Sept. 12 at the Landmark Bethesda Row.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company