Thursday, September 4, 2003

Bob Dylan would never star in a movie called “Exposed and Identified,” would he? Of course, this is called “Masked and Anonymous.” Of course it is inscrutable, enigmatic, opaque … rifle through Roget’s good book yourself.

For this is Bob Dylan’s way: the one-way sign pointing down a dark dirt road, at the beginning of which there’s a sign that says “Do Not Enter” and at the end of which you may not find what you’re looking for.

Directed by “Seinfeld” collaborator Larry Charles, who co-wrote with Mr. Dylan under a pair of cheeky pseudonyms, it’s littered with clues-in-passing and subtle hints. Obvious ones include the name of a TV show on a network’s weekly calendar called “It’sAlright Ma.”

A not-so-obvious allusion — I could be way wrong about this — comes when a character says, “You can’t be honest out there anymore.”

Was that a reference to the line in “Absolutely Sweet Marie” — “To live outside the law, you must be honest”?

Oh, who knows.

Dylanologists will puzzle over “Masked” for as long as they can stand it, which probably is the point of this very odd, impenetrable and incoherent movie. (For crying out loud, even the Dylan songs on the soundtrack are sung in foreign languages.)

I say probably with all the requisite uncertainty, and I fully acknowledge another possibility, which is that there’s a meta-point, a skeleton key, a Rosetta stone for this film that will unlock its mysteries and translate its hieroglyphics.

Are you ready, dear reader, for Bob Dylan’s 1a16th Revelation?

Here goes: Don’t take Bob Dylan so seriously.

Mr. Dylan himself hints at this theory when, as Jack Fate, a washed-up singer-songwriter sprung from prison to play a medical relief TV benefit concert, he gives this incredulous reply to an admirer who boasts of having memorized all his songs:

“Now, why did you do that?”

The real-life Mr. Dylan might as well be asking his fans the very same question.

To be sure, “Masked’s” milieu is all serious and philosophical and apocalyptic on the surface, but don’t let it fool you. I think this movie is a very simple sheep in pseudo-profundity’s clothing.

What looks like a sweaty, palm-tree-lined Latin American banana republic is very soon revealed to be the United States itself in post-revolutionary chaos.

In some unspecified future, a dictatorial junta — led by a figurehead who could be Fate’s father and Mickey Rourke playing the shifty master of puppets — has taken over the government and controls the media.

There’s random violence in the streets, rampant beggary and, always, the sound of alarm, panic and helicopters in the sky.

Meanwhile, Fate and his band — Mr. Dylan’s actual touring combo, here known as Simple Twist of Fate, an allusion to a song from the “Blood on the Tracks” album — rehearse for the benefit show, organized by a swindling promo man (the big, bumptious and brilliant John Goodman) and a harried TV exec (Jessica Lange) who answers to a crew of sharp-suited black gangsters.

Fate’s old pal, Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson), comes onto the scene, and I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to why he does so.

Along the way, Fate runs into a motley assortment of drifters and weirdos in a series of cryptic, and mostly meaningless, vignettes with, for example, the Shakespeareanly named drifter Prospero (Cheech Marin); a disillusioned rebel fighter (Giovanni Ribisi); and an animal wrangler (Val Kilmer) who bemoans humanity’s curse, the knowledge of death.

There’s also the couple from Mars — a jittery voodoo Catholic teetotaler (Penelope Cruz) and her leather-clad squeeze, the journalist Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges), who aggressively badgers Fate about rock’s late ‘60s glory days and “what it all meant.”

Fate never explains anything and instead gives bewildered looks to Friend that all but say, “Dude, you are a self-serious poseur who’s stuck in the past. Let it go.”

Mr. Dylan does speak at length in several minimonologues, in one of which Fate says: “I was always a singer, maybe nothing more. I stopped trying to figure things out a long time ago.”

There it is, the money quote. Stop trying to figure things out. Bob Dylan, as brilliant as he is, is a singer who puts his cowboy suit on one leg at a time, same as you and me.

My advice: Enjoy the new songs on the soundtrack, which includes a great version of Mr. Dylan singing “Dixie,” and see this movie only if you are a professional Dylan buff.


TITLE: “Masked and Anonymous,” playing exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5 until Sept. 12, when it opens at Landmark Bethesda Row

RATING: PG-13 (Brief violence and occasional profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Larry Charles. Produced by Jeff Rosen and Nigel Sinclair. Written by Mr. Charles and Bob Dylan under the psuedonyms Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine. Original music by Mr. Dylan. Cinematography by Rogier Stoffers.

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes.


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