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'Masked and Anonymous'

Dylan songs saving grace of 'Masked'

Friday, November 28, 2003

by Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Sometimes it's not enough to know the meaning of things/Sometimes we have to know what things don't mean as well."

--- Jack Fate (Bob Dylan)
in "Masked and Anonymous"

Masked and Anonymous" is like one of those rambling Dylan songs -- "Desolation Row," "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," "Changing of the Guard" -- that pull you along on their own surreal course, defying you to figure it all out.

 
 
'MASKED AND ANONYMOUS'
RATING: PG-13 for some language and brief violence.

STARRING: Bob Dylan, John Goodman, Jeff Bridges.

DIRECTOR: Larry Charles.

   
 

This time, most people aren't going to want to bother.

"Masked and Anonymous" comes to town four months after its release with the worst word of mouth since "Down in the Groove," Dylan's last lamentable record.

"Masked and Anonymous" is a mess, all right, but as far as messes go, it's one of the more intriguing ones.

For one thing, it's sprinkled with performances by Dylan and his crack band that make it essential viewing for the Dylan completist. And although Dylan isn't playing Dylan, there are in-jokes and parallels to his career that are too precious to miss.

The setting is a post-revolutionary America that resembles a Third World country. Who revolted against whom and why is never clear, and it's not worth piecing together. Suffice to say that desolation row has gotten mighty crowded.

John Goodman and Jessica Lange play volatile partners who cook up a scheme for a benefit concert for "medical relief." Because they "don't think Sting or Springsteen or Paul McCartney or Billy Joel is going to work out" -- ha ha -- they spring Jack Fate from a squalid prison cell even as it's noted that his career was "over before it started."

The plot doesn't go much beyond that, but the dialogue never stops, with characters all given to philosophical rants that walk the line between the profound and absurd. ("All of us in some ways are trying to kill time; when it's all said and done, time ends up killing us.") The celebrity appearances keep coming as well, adding up to one of the most spectacular wastes of talent in recent memory.

Goodman and Jeff Bridges, who never turn in a bad performance, both go at their roles like this is a real movie, Goodman as a surly manager and Bridges as an unctuous journalist. Bridges badgers Fate with accusing questions that will bring a smile to Dylan fans: "You weren't at Woodstock, were you?" he pesters. "Where were you?"

"What about Mothers of Invention, Jack? There's a guy, Zappa, who wouldn't take no for an answer. He did that movie 'Uncle Meat,' 16 hours long, unedited. He let it all hang out, didn't he? What about you? You ever let it all hang out?"

To that, Dylan/Fate just mumbles, "It's always been hanging out."

Never to be confused as an actor, Dylan does a lot of mumbling in "Masked and Anonymous" and never seems quite convinced that he wants to be there, until he picks up his guitar. They mock his own career with a list of songs they want him to play at the benefit to bring hope to the rebels -- "Revolution," "Street Fighting Man," "Won't Get Fooled Again."

"Sounds like a lot of songs," he deadpans.

We never do get to hear him play those, mercifully. But at various times, Dylan does all or parts of "Crash on the Levee," "I'll Remember You," "Diamond Joe" and a knockout version of "Cold Irons Bound." His music is also scattered through the film by the likes of Los Lobos, the Grateful Dead, Shirley Caesar and the Magokoro Brothers.

"Masked and Anonymous" was directed by former "Seinfeld" writer and director Larry Charles and written by Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine, pseudonyms for Dylan and Charles, respectively. They've assembled a cast of thousands -- including Penelope Cruz, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Ed Harris, Bruce Dern, Val Kilmer and Giovanni Ribisi -- that was probably there to meet Dylan (hell, I would have done that movie, too).

It's an all-star ensemble in service of one seriously confused muddle. At some point, someone could have sat down and tried to make sense of the script. But Dylan seems to get a kick out of this type of unfinished chaos.

"I stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago," he says at the end. With "Masked and Anonymous," he challenges you to join him.


Weekend Editor Scott Mervis can be reached at smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576./I>'

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