Masked and Anonymous (2003) tries very hard to reach the kind of profundity befitting of its main star, the singer-songwriter-actor Bob Dylan. In it Dylan plays the legendary wanderer Jack Fate, a loved and hated folk hero who is summoned to a benefit concert in post-revolutionary Latin America in order to raise funds for aid work. The trouble is that that synopsis is about as much narrative exposition as we are granted, in a film that spectacularly fails to engage in any way.
Larry Charles’ first film seemed to bypass a cinema release entirely but it couldn’t have been for want of a better cast. Next to Dylan (who is a limited but credible actor) the movie is littered with acting titans: John Goodman as the concert ‘director’ Uncle Sweetheart, Jessica Lange as sidekick Nina Veronica, Jeff Bridges as the Jeff Lebowski-inflected journalist Tom Friend and Penelope Cruz as Friend’s timid wife Pagan Lace. With such a plethora of names and faces Masked and Anonymous should have, at the very least, coasted along as a focussed series of vignettes and perpetual improvisation.
Unfortunately director Charles (whose previous efforts amount to writing episodes for Seinfeld) proves to be ill-equipped in his role. Incapable of bringing a logical coherence to the most simple of exchanges the film ambles from one narcissistic scene to the next, trying your patience like the Dylan songs I Am a Lonesome Hobo (1968) and Down Along the Cove (1968). It may have been a deliberate ploy to structure the movie as a visual stream of consciousness, allowing time for each character to reflect on the events around him; yet unlike films such as Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), where this device succeeds in generating an amorphous focus, in Masked and Anonymous it simply creates ambiguity because of the weak scripting and direction. Bob Dylan looks just as weak, gaunt and introverted to the point of critical mass. He does nothing but wander about in a self-reflexive manner that says as much about the movie as it does him.
To his credit it is Val Kilmer who manages to provide the film with not only its single humorous moment (pretending to barbecue a cute bunny), but also something more that the trite philosophising of the other actors. Looking like he might have walked from this set onto Ron Howard’s The Missing (2004) and then to Wonderland (2004) to play porn-king John Holmes, Kilmer here has a short cameo where he ponders the role of Man in the world. However he’s cut short by Charles’ ill-advised editing and never seen again. In a movie that cannot distinguish the chaff from the wheat, Kilmer’s four or five minutes of screen time is eminently more watchable than the rest of the performances combined.
Masked and Anonymous is very much a curate’s egg of a picture. For the most part it seems wholly uncertain of a point or purpose and, while providing some occasionally intriguing moments of performance and social commentary, this is overall an awesome waste of talent and opportunity.