Masked and Anonymous
directed by Larry Charles
[Yale Herald, September 2003]

There are any number of axioms one could bring up in an effort to explain why Masked and Anonymous, a remarkably enticing movie starring Bob Dylan, is the rollicking disappointment that it is. The first one that springs to mind is the one about potential being a double-edged sword: nobody gets upset when an acknowledged hack director makes another teen sex romp, but the so-called masterminds behind this film are hardly amateurs—director Larry Charles proved himself long ago at the helm of such shows as Seinfeld and Mad About You, while Dylan, who conceptualized and wrote most of it, is, well, Bob Dylan. Considering this, as well as the outlandish star power of the film’s ensemble cast (hell, Christian Slater plays a roadie), the failure of Masked and Anonymous to deliver on its promise is almost insulting.

Firmly entrenched in the uneasy division between Dylan biopic and post-apocalyptic political lament, the film establishes itself in a squalid, war-torn country that could be America as easily as Colombia or Rwanda. Cut to Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman, as vast and avaricious as ever), a blue leisure suit-clad promoter planning a benefit concert to eke some profit out of the ruins and pay off his mounting mob dues. When all other acts fall through, Sweetheart arranges to have cult folk hero Jack Fate (Dylan, playing Dylan and yet managing to do a mediocre job) released from prison. The bulk of the plot consists of Fate’s subsequent reacquaintance with the world, including the imminent death of his father, the dictator who controls the country and who sent Fate to prison in the first place, as well as the various things that go wrong in preparing the benefit. A veritable army of strange characters orbits the benefit, including jaded journalist Jeff Bridges, his neurotically religious girlfriend Penelope Cruz, Jessica Lange as Sweetheart’s overmedicating business partner, Luke Wilson as a bartender who leaves his job to bring Fate a vaguely storied guitar, and Giovanni Ribisi, Val Kilmer, and Ed Harris in bit parts all too strange to describe.

Which brings up the next relevant truth: even the best acting available can’t make a shoddy script compelling. Look no further than Bridges and Goodman, whose collective performance in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski made for one of the finest movies of the decade; after the initial excitement of seeing them together again wears off, they both seem powerless to guide the viewer towards comprehension or enjoyment. As actor after seasoned actor stumbles around the grounds of what could just as well be a disorderly movie set, each one seems poised to forge a lasting, charismatic impression, but it never catches—cameo-based characters like the dictator’s mistress (Angela Bassett) and some guy named Prospero (Cheech Marin) get meager screen time, and bigger fish like Goodman and Bridges have bigger script problems to deal with. Dylan, meanwhile, doesn’t even seem to care enough to make himself interesting, visually or narratively; he coasts from scene to scene with a glazed non-expression of bemusement, as Fate remains a bystander to all of the film’s action.

What becomes clear soon enough is that the carnival-like atmosphere of the concert ground mirrors the haphazard nature of the story itself, which clearly has big things to say but loses them among cryptic soliloquies and overt yet opaque symbolism. The film’s minor victories—the earnest pleasure of seeing Dylan and his band rehearse and perform, some intriguing monologues, and a few timely jokes that rise above the morass—seem hard won in the midst of so much grainy, gaudy, quasi-improvised drivel. Thus, instead of provoking thought and stirring some worthwhile indignation, Masked and Anonymous lives up to its name, getting lost in its own convoluted world where nothing is especially believable to begin with. Charles has suggested in interviews that you’re supposed to see it five or six times to really get it, but the prospect of sitting through such a tedious chore even twice makes the ultimate enlightenment seem like more trouble than it’s worth.