“Masked and Anonymous” is like watching Bob Dylan stand amid expert volleyball players as they scamper frantically to keep the ball in the air until the star — rooted solidly in one spot — decides to take a swing at knocking it over the net. John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Angela Bassett and Giovanni Ribisi are just a few of the familiar faces who perform around the singer.
Dylan, meanwhile, seems preoccupied and uncomfortable, as if he’s trying to remember not only his lines, but why he thought this would be a good idea in the first place. He only seems at ease during the musical numbers. Go figure.
His character, a forgotten folk singer named Jack Fate, has recently been released from political prison to perform a concert in a Third World dreamscape version of America.
But let’s be fair to Dylan — his unique kind of charisma comes from being an introverted enigma. He sits down, sings some songs and leaves everybody else to figure out why “you used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat” or what he meant when he said “the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn.”
The singer reportedly collaborated on the “Masked and Anonymous” screenplay with director Larry Charles (who wrote for the TV shows “Seinfeld” and “Mad About You,”) although they wrote under pseudonyms. The dialogue has an improvised feeling. Characters ramble and then repeat cues to set up wordplay.
“What are you drinking?” Bridges, playing the obtuse reporter Tom Friend, asks his editor. “What am I drinking? I’m drinking my life away,” replies the editor, played by Bruce Dern.
The film is full of the tips of interesting ideas. When Fate is released from prison, a guard tells him: “Keeping people from being free is big business.”
All right ... and?
“It’s an overcrowded world. It’s hard to get to the top. There’s a long line at the elevator,” Bridges says to his girlfriend (Cruz).
“It’s OK,” she responds. “We’ll take the stairs.”
In a song, which has melody and rhythm adding extra dimensions, these words might have more resonance, but in a movie they just hang there. Like Dylan’s performance, these thoughts are intriguing but unsatisfying.
Fate shares numerous parallels with Dylan, and some of Dylan’s songs are mentioned in the story as belonging to Fate. With this in mind, it’s easier to forgive and accept Dylan’s bad performance since he apparently isn’t supposed to be acting, just existing.
But he needs to give more. What would the singer really think about the little girl in one scene who warbles one of his ancient protest songs? How does he feel? Angry? Honored? Like a rolling stone?
There are some jokes about Dylan’s legendary mumbling.
“Will his songs be recognizable?” someone asks.
“All his songs are recognizable, even when they’re not recognizable!” snaps Lange, as a shrill concert promoter.
The response has a paradoxical ring to it but ignores the fact that Dylan deliberately muddles his singing sometimes. What she should say is: “His songs are recognizable for NOT being recognizable.”
Maybe that’s what the Dylan mystique is all about, too — and hence the picture’s title.
“Sometimes it not enough to know the meaning of things,” Fate says. “Sometimes you have to know what things don’t mean, as well.”