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  Masked and Anonymous The Times They Are A-Chuntering
Year: 2003
Director: Larry Charles
Stars: Bob Dylan, John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Penélope Cruz, Christian Slater, Chris Penn, Mickey Rourke, Steven Bauer, Val Kilmer, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Giovanni Ribisi, Ed Harris, Cheech Marin, Tracey Walter, Susan Tyrrell
Genre: Musical, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 1 vote)
Review: It is the near future, and the U.S.A. is torn with civil war. Promoter Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) needs to put on a money-making concert for live television, ostensibly for a medical relief charity, but actually to line his own pockets, and all the big names, including McCartney and Springsteen, have turned him down. So he springs Jack Fate (Bob Dylan) from a Latin American jail to headline, a cult singer-songwriter who is almost forgotten about, according to the TV executives, but they press on regardless. Meanwhile, a washed up journalist (Jeff Bridges) is persuaded by his editor (Bruce Dern) to head over to the studios and secure an exclusive interview with Fate, so, with his girlfriend (Penélope Cruz) tagging along, he sets off to meet him.

Coming across like a bizarre vanity project, or the film equivalent of a concept album, Masked and Anonymous was scripted by star Dylan and director Larry Charles, under pseudonyms. The cast is remarkable, packed with recognisable faces, but you get the impression that this array of talent was assembled out of the desire to act onscreen with a music legend rather than on the strength of the screenplay, which is muddled to say the least. With a semi-improvised air throughout, time and time again the action sees Dylan politely standing and being talked at by a star, with nary an expression troubling his wizened features.

Some of the cast have bigger roles than others; Goodman plays the sleazy promoter in broad strokes, and business partner Jessica Lange does likewise - nobody in a position of power is to be trusted here, they're all looking out for number one. Luke Wilson offers Fate moral support, and Cruz provides some heart as the nervy girlfriend, but along with those characters you get shorter appearances such as Giovanni Ribisi showing up long enough to be shot by counter-revolutionaries, Val Kilmer as an animal wrangler who elucidates on his view of the world, Christian Slater and Chris Penn as part of the studio crew, and, most extraordinarily of all, Ed Harris as the ghost of a minstrel strumming a banjo.

This is a musical film too, you couldn't get Dylan to appear without getting him to perform a few songs, after all, but you're led to expect that the ending will see the concert performed, perhaps for a good half hour or so. However, you'll be let down, because the concert comprises of one number, with others dotted around in a piecemeal fashion - Dylan's voice admittedly sounds a little strained, but the music provides a measure of respite from the interminable chatter that witters on, dragging from one scene into the next. What exactly they're trying to tell us is vague, but it looks like a stand of defiance against the Man, who is exploiting the poor, and principled fellows like Fate - Dylan principally plays himself as a folk hero.

While Masked and Anonymous deserved its terrible reaction to some extent, there's something about seeing a legend in his own lifetime taking part in such a self-aggrandising folly that paradoxically adds to his mystique. It's as eccentric as you imagine the man to be, even if here he's more like a sixties survivor worried about his relevance. Bridges' reporter, endessly criticising and snidely analysing, is the most despicable character, but odd lines about there being two types of people, workers and bosses, show a political side, or it does until Mickey Rourke shows up to make a speech, and then it's back to anybody's guess what the point of it all is. Rambling and unfocused it may be (you're encouraged to bring your own interpretation), and the entertainment value is questionable, but the sheer strangeness of it is intriguing. And it's not Hearts of Fire. Maybe Dylan should have set the project to music instead?
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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