cast: Bob Dylan, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, and Luke Wilson
director: Larry Charles
106 minutes (12) 2003 widescreen ratio 1.85:1
High Fliers VHS rental
Also available to buy or rent on DVD
reviewed by Donald Morefield
Co-written by star Bob Dylan and director Larry Charles under pen names (Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine) Masked And Anonymous is a slickly produced and directed black comedy. It’s a weird post-revolutionary sci-fi drama peopled with a host of archetypal characters (inspired by Dylan songs) well suited to the protest-movie scenario.
With the aid of TV producer Nina (Jessica Lange), wisecracking promoter and entrepreneur Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) plans a crooked benefit concert, hoping that he can raise enough cash to siphon funds away to paying off his mafia debts without anyone noticing. To this end, he gets aged musician Jack Fate (Bob Dylan) out of prison and hypes the gig as a comeback show. Fate’s best pal Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson) is called in for support, while veteran journalist Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges) and his girlfriend Pagan Lace (Penélope Cruz) snoop around the set backstage chasing an exclusive interview, asking awkward questions and making nearly everyone, especially Uncle Sweetheart but including usually imperturbable Fate, somewhat nervous.
In place of a real plot, we have elements of fable, political analogy, rock history namechecks, and tantalising expectations that secrets from Fate’s murky past will be revealed. There are speeches, monologues, metaphorical questions rather than proper movie dialogue, but this is essential viewing for its amazingly stellar cast. I don’t think there have been so many Hollywood cameos in one film since Robert Altman’s superb The Player (1992). Bruce Dern plays Tom Friend’s editor, whose job it is to persuade the writer to get the scoop on Fate. There’s Cheech Marin as a peripheral Prospero, Giovanni Ribisi as the traumatised and suicidal soldier on a bus, Val Kilmer as an animal wrangler on the TV studio backlot, Tracey Walter as a chatty hotel desk clerk, Christian Slater and Chris Penn appear as TV technical crewmen, and Fred Ward plays a barfly in an early scene. Other notable roles go to Susan Tyrrell as a fortune-teller, Angela Bassett as the unnamed mistress, and there are also vivid cameos from the likes of Steven Bauer, Ed Harris, and Mickey Rourke, with film director Richard Sarafian as the President.
Appreciation of its themes is subjective, but what the film says about rampant political sleaze, the scandal-mongering media, economic pressures upon western capitalist society during globalisation, and social problems of poverty and urban crime is often pithily amusing yet never trite. It’s rarely unforgivably pretentious, and presented with commendable style for such a low-budget venture (it was shot on HD video, co-produced by the BBC), despite the obvious preaching tone of the wry yet deadpan commentaries. Masked And Anonymous is the directorial debut of Larry Charles (Emmy award winning writer-producer of TV comedy Seinfeld), and marks the welcome return of Dylan to screen work after a 13-year break. He plays a cultural ghost of himself, but he’s a ghost of the legendary type. He haunts the war-torn LA setting and the world seems to circle around him even when he’s not on screen. Masked And Anonymous isn’t a vanity project. It’s unlikely that so many big stars would have taken pay-cuts just to appear in a Dylan movie if they didn’t believe the material was truly worthwhile.
An eclectic range of live music is one of this cultworthy production’s populist saving graces and, in addition some excellent ‘rehearsal’ performances by Dylan as Fate (with Dylan’s own band portraying a Jack Fate tribute/backing band), we get soundtrack covers of a few Dylan songs from such high calibre groups as The Grateful Dead, Los Lobos, and The Ramones.