25 April 2005 | BrandtSponseller
Only recommendable to hardcore Dylan fans
Set in an unspecified war-torn country during an unspecified era, Masked and Anonymous weaves a number of threads around Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman), a shady businessman/promoter, and Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange), a television producer. They're trying to raise money by putting on a "benefit concert", but because of their country's political quagmire, no stars will do the show. The best they can manage is Jack Fate (Bob Dylan), who is currently being held as a prisoner. The gig enables him to be released from jail and undertake a journey to the venue. We meet a cavalcade of quirky people along the way, most of whom say very quirky things, and just as the concert begins, the country's political situation worsens. What will happen to our cast?
Even though I'm a huge Dylan fan and Dylan is the focus of this film, I'm being very generous in giving Masked and Anonymous a 7 out of 10, which is only equivalent to the letter grade of "C" in my way of looking at ratings. If the film didn't feature Dylan and his music throughout, if there weren't a number of songs performed by Dylan and his band, I would probably have given Masked and Anonymous a 4 out of 10 (a high "F") or less. Understanding that, if you don't like Dylan's music, you should steer clear of this film.
That's a shame, because there are a number of interesting ideas in Masked and Anonymous. It has great potential, but the potential isn't developed at all. Any viewer giving the film a complete, coherent and favorable interpretation has put far too much time and energy into being an apologist--they've basically constructed an elaborate fiction for themselves ("Are they journalists or novelists" indeed). Because in the end, the film is just an incoherent mess anyway you slice it.
Under the most literal interpretation, Masked and Anonymous begins as a clever satire. The setting is a country overrun by a military dictator and various bands of rebels who have changed sides and causes so often they can't keep the factions straight. Initially, it seems like it might be a modern version of Woody Allen's Bananas (1971). Director/co-writer Larry Charles goes to great pains to keep the country anonymous. We're given visual clues that suggest a tropical nation, but in the next shot, it looks like we're in Detroit or some other Midwestern U.S. city. He uses an ethnic rainbow of extras, and the production design incorporates tokens from cultures around the world. On this literal level, Masked and Anonymous works fairly well until Dylan's first song performed on stage, at about the half hour to forty-minute mark. After this point, Charles, who co-wrote with Dylan, progressively abandons the interesting story. The focus becomes poetic but anachronistic dialogue and surrealistic "skits", almost exclusively set within the artificial environment of a large soundstage, and that seem like they arrived on a late train from another film. Charles also largely abandons the interesting cinematography and production design found early in the film.
On a less literal level, Masked and Anonymous can be viewed somewhere between a thinly veiled parable based on Dylan's actual life and a cinematic realization of a number of Dylan lyrics. Both ideas are excellent, but both would take much more work than this film evidences to pull off effectively.
A lot of dialogue isn't just thinly veiled as being about Dylan, it's not veiled at all. The character of Jack Fate often dissolves into nothing. Narration supposedly by Fate sounds like Dylan's poetry/lyrics, talking about his actual experiences in life. Characters ask Fate questions that I'm sure Dylan's fans have asked him at one point. And after all, Fate is just singing Dylan's songs, as Dylan does them when he's "playing himself". Dialogue that isn't so literally about Dylan, whether satirical or not (such as when Uncle Sweetheart points out that involved parties want him to play every big late 1960s band's music except his own), often makes references to his lyrics in some way or another. "A Simple Twist of Fate" becomes the name of the "Jack Fate cover band" that Dylan/Fate ends up playing with. The television schedule features programs that are names of Dylan songs, and so on.
But as either a parable about Dylan's life, with him busting out of his Minnesota "jail" and heading on a bus to another world, or as a weaving together of Dylan lyrics to make a story, Masked and Anonymous is far too loose to work. Dylan's lyrics have neither the "conceptual continuity" of Frank Zappa (Zappa's Uncle Meat concept is mentioned at one point as a precedent, and this might be why Goodman's character is Uncle Sweetheart) nor the surrealism of the later Beatles. On the other hand, Dylan has an awful lot of lyrics to choose from, so it's not that one couldn't construct an effective parable of his life (or some other plot) by threading together a number of lyrical references. It's just that one would have to do a lot more work to create a captivating film than Charles and Dylan do here.
The most generous reading of the film has it as a paradox--a deep, cryptic and mysterious means of telling us to not take Dylan as so deep, cryptic and mysterious. It's a bit disingenuous; especially when the film is often not as deep, cryptic or mysterious as it wants to be and it's a bit absurd to deny that Dylan is deep, cryptic or mysterious.
Charles also tends to waste his bloated cast--it seems that everyone was interested in having a cameo in a Dylan film (and who can blame them). Most of the cast does a fine job with the material they were given to work with, but it's both not enough and too much to save the film as a film rather than an inadequate concert video.