One of the characters, a network television executive, warns us early on when he says, "Something's starting to smell here." Dylan himself may have been aware that an odor was present when he decided to use a pseudonym, Sergei Petrov, in the screenplay credits. Director Larry Charles, the co-author, is billed as Rene Fontaine. Sadly, the all-star cast attracted to this project because of Dylan's involvement are not "masked and anonymous," except, perhaps, for Ed Harris whose brief, amusing cameo is performed in black-face.
Did I say "amusing"? I'm not sure if this is meant to be a comedy or a drama. It may have been intended to work like one of Dylan's songs from the ‘60s, you know, a surreal masterpiece like "Desolation Row" whose brilliant lyrics imply depths of meaning but are open to endless interpretation. But Masked and Anonymous is too haphazard and too pretentious to warrant much analysis.
Dylan plays Jack Fate, a now forgotten rock star released from prison to perform a benefit concert for an unidentified, fictional country racked by war and civil unrest. John Goodman plays the promoter, Uncle Sweetheart, a sleazy Colonel Tom Parker wannabe who hopes to pocket the profits for himself. The movie only comes to life when Goodman is on screen, but that's like saying an exhumed corpse seems to have been alive after burial because its hair continued to grow (an illusion resulting from the skin's having shrunk).
Jessica Lange is the representative for the skeptical TV network that plans to televise the concert. She furiously smokes cigarettes while pacing madly and looking frazzled. That's better than furiously praying which is what Penelope Cruz is required to do, unless she's praying for deliverance from this movie. Jeff Bridges, as a journalist named Tom Friend, seems intent on trying to actually deliver a performance, but that's impossible when acting with Dylan who is less animated than Elvis in the notorious "last photo" snapped while the King was at rest in his coffin.
This man who has made such imaginative use of language in some of the greatest songs ever written merely mumbles a few sentences of unremarkable and usually pointless dialogue, and offers an occasional voice-over that never succeeds in explaining anything. In one scene, Bridges as the journalist, harangues Dylan, saying "You're supposed to have all the answers" and compares him unfavorably with the late Jimi Hendrix. "Hendrix let it all hang out at Woodstock," he says without explaining what that means. Dylan defends himself, saying he's been letting it all hang out all along. If so, there's nothing there. In one of his voice-overs, Dylan himself says, "Maybe I'm just a singer and nothing more."
Of course, Dylan's statement is correct, or at least close to the truth. He is a singer. He's also a great songwriter, maybe even a poet, whose songs continue to dazzle and inspire music fans of many generations. He's nothing more than that, but that's more than enough. But many of his more ardent fans, especially those who discovered Dylan at the same time they stopped shaving and let their hair grow, consider him a guru who does indeed have all the answers.
If so, he's saving them for another project. There are no answers here, only questions, the most obvious of which is "Why bother?" Why bother making such a meaningless, deadening film, and why should anyone bother to see it?
Well, there is the concert footage, including a memorable rendition of "Dixie" and a tender "I'll Remember You." Here and there, you'll hear snatches of Dylan's studio recordings such as "Blind Willie McTell," a song that managed to convey more in five verses than Masked and Anonymous does in 104 minutes. But most of the soundtrack is devoted to cover versions of Dylan classics by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Magokoro Brothers and Los Lobos. There's some fun to be had from a scene in the boardroom of the TV network where a wall-sized schedule of programming reveals titles taken from Dylan songs. Maybe someday, someone will make a TV series out of "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." It's bound to be better than Masked and Anonymous.
© 2003 Brian W. Fairbanks