By Mark Guarino
You’re mad watching “Masked and Anonymous.” You’re also intrigued and smile because there’s a sliver of beauty in this con.
This is the struggle you’ll get yourself into during this film, a cameo-studded drama whose chief calling card is the acting debut of Bob Dylan. Dylan acted in films before, all flops. Yet with this starring role in a film he co-wrote with television director/writer Larry Charles (both under Russian-named aliases), there are no precepts at work. Bob Dylan plays not himself, but the idea of Bob Dylan even though people in the film call him Jack Fate. But like all the aliases the iconic songwriter has adopted over the past 40 years, that’s a con too. Robert Zimmerman — Dylan’s birth name — hides behind masks for a living.
“Masked and Anonymous?” You bet.
Confused? If you’re a Dylan-phile, you know it’s par for the course. Dylan’s musical career is feted with lyrical ambiguity and wordplay where the fun is plying subtext when there looks like there is none. “Masked and Anonymous” is a cinematic Dylan poem. Each character who ambles onscreen then ambles off after reciting an aria is straight out of one of his songs.
Does that make a movie? Hardly. Suckers for plots need to look elsewhere, although up against “S.W.A.T.,” Dylan and Charles actually have the edge. Dylan’s Fate is a washed-up singer summoned from prison to perform a charity concert staged by oily promoter Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) and his Medea-looking partner Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange). Fate arrives, entering a circus of broken people with faded dreams, all eager to grab him to talk at length about the meaning of art, religion, life to which he responds with a squinty stare and frisky one-liners. (Jeff Brides: “you ever let it all hang out?” Dylan: “it always has been hangin’ out.”)
The film is set in an unnamed city swarming with corruption and poverty. Charles filmed, documentary-style, in downtown L.A., making the societal breakdown eerily close to home. That puts everyone on screen on its backside and gives this film its nervous tick. The music adds to the surrealism, with skewering versions of Dylan tunes — an Italian hip-hop cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” — plus Dylan performing live, poised like a stone inches from the lens, giving the words coming from his mouth almost Biblical weight.
Giving a songwriter’s musical world vision on screen, “Masked and Anonymous” is an intriguing artifact. But Lord, it gets silly. The endless string of cameos from both Hollywood’s A-list (Penelope Cruz) and low renters (Chris Penn) makes its mystery vanish. If Charles and Dylan wanted us to see these people as timeless archetypes of damaged humanity, we see only celebrity. What’s worse is hearing them chew up Dylan’s lyrical dialogue which would crackle in song. On an album. Sung by Dylan.
The film ends with a single shot of Dylan’s face as he rides out of town. It’s a rare chance to study the mask and its secrets. He hints at a smile as he says in a voiceover, “I stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.” Perfect.