The president of an unnamed country in the throes of revolution and chaos hires concert promoter Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange) to put on a benefit show that will bring peace and harmony to the beleaguered nation. But McCartney, U2, the Stones, Springsteen and the rest of the A-list acts are unavailable. Enter Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman), a booze-guzzling, fast-talking con man in a seedy light blue tuxedo who has the answer to Nina's prayers. She only has to do one thing: spring the headliner, former great Jack Fate (Bob Dylan), from a dirty, crowded jail and put on a show in "masked & anonymous.
The press material for "masked & anonymous" claims that the film is about an America in trouble, transitioning from the safety of a bygone era to a new, cynical society shackled by a selfish dictator and his henchmen. In fact, the film has an oddball third world, Hispanic feel that keeps me at arm's length rather than wrapping me in a cloak of familiarity. The problem is the script, by Rene Fontaine and Serei Petrov, is a contrived mess of numerous cameo performances and soliloquies, a look into a surreal ambiguous society, a sadly doddering performance by Bob Dylan and no real point.
"masked & anonymous," unfortunately, is not a film buff's film as it should be. There are certain qualities to the movie that keep it from total disaster, one of which make me recommend it to die hard Dylan fans. The man may seem like he is another world while he's "acting" as Jack Fate but when he is behind his guitar and in front of the microphone, he is transformed. I have never been a big fan of Mr. Zimmerman but found him to be almost mesmerizing as a songster - and you get about a half dozen of these tunes performed with a top-notch backup band. These songs are nearly, but not quite, worth the price of admission, even with a couple of other good points.
John Goodman gives it his all as the unscrupulous, totally debauched drunkard promoter, Uncle Sweetheart. He is played as a shrewd huckster but his mind and self-image are muddled by his years of boozing. He sees this shot at the "big time" as his stepping stone back to success and Goodman gives a convincing, funny and sometimes pathetic performance. Jeff Bridges, as the representative of the fourth estate and the voice of "truth," Tom Friend, tries very hard but is hampered as he tries to play opposite the wooden Dylan. Jessica Lange is also quite good and underused as the benefit concert organizer who has more than her job on the line in these uncertain sociopolitical times. Little Tinashe Kachingwe steals the show with her a cappella performance of "The Times They Are Changing."
The ensemble supporting/ensemble cast is vast and, unfortunately, given too little to do except to be on a fan's checklist. Besides the before mentioned stars there is a litany of the friends of helmer Charles. Penelope Cruz is given too much film time (and I never thought I would say that about this adorable actress) as Tom's hanging-on girlfriend Pagan Lace. Luke Wilson (yes, he is in this one, too) is Jack Fate's disciple and protector Bobby Cupid. After this it becomes "which one will you recognize" marathon of talent with Angela Basset, Bruce Dern, Cheech Marin, Mickey Rourke, Fred Ward, Christian Slater and more showing up. Most intriguing of the lesser roles are Val Kilmer as the Animal Wrangler, who represents compassion for man's fellow creatures, and Ed Harris as Oscar Vogel, a black-faced minstrel who acts as Jack's muse in the end.
With "masked & anonymous" the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It is a missed opportunity considering the wasted talent involved and is little more than indulgence for the film's helmer, former "Seinfeld" executive producer Larry Charles. This one is for Dylan fans only. I give it a C-.
Television producer Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange, "Titus") and entertainment manager Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") are desperate people in a fictional country in the throes of civil war who join forces to produce a television special benefit concert for the government's network. Unable to attract any name rock stars to the war torn area, Sweetheart resorts to springing an old client, Jack Fate (Bob Dylan), from jail. A bunkered down newspaper editor (Bruce Dern, "All the Pretty Horses") smells a story and sends cynical reporter Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges, "The Contender") to dig beyond the "Masked & Anonymous."
Working with a script by Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov with original songs by Bob Dylan, first time feature director Larry Charles (HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm and writer/producer of "Seinfeld" and "Mad About You") attempts a "Nashville"-like tapestry of an imagined American landscape. For those who prefer realism over impressionism, "Masked & Anonymous" will be a frustrating experience. For the others, not every thread is golden, but there are interesting threads to follow.
On a TV sound stage like a warehoused carnival freak show with caravans for trailers, Nina Veronica is sweating out Sweetheart's attempt to land her a name for her dubious benefit show. "Well, how else do you get rock stars to do TV? You either give them a cause or give them an award." she states charitably, before bravely facing a "Network"-inspired panel of television execs who are violently vocal about their belief in her ability to produce her show with Fate.
Meanwhile, Jack (Dylan, looking like a Jewish Jack Palance in an oversized Stetson and toothpick of a suit) leaves jail (to the strains of "Like a Rolling Stone"), calls upon his pal Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson, "Alex & Emma") to meet him and travels through a country of counter-revolutionaries. (A disillusioned soldier (Giovanni Ribisi, "Heaven") jumps off Jack's bus to confront them and is shot by the side of the road.) When he arrives he delights the assorted crew, stagehands, fortune tellers and ventriloquists with tunes like "Down in the Flood" and "Dixie" and is honored by Mrs. Brown's (Susan Traylor, "A River Runs Through It") daughter (Tinashe Kachingwe) who sings "The Times They Are A Changin'" acapella (the film's loveliest scene). But we discover there's more to Fate than he and his band (Charlie Sexton, Larry Campbell and George Receli) when he meets with political upstart Edmund (Mickey Rourke playing Billy Bob Thornton) and goes to visit his dying father, the President (Richard Sarafian, "Don Juan DeMarco") and his father's brothel-owning mistress (Angela Bassett, who hypocritically accused Halle Berry of prostituting herself to white men with her Oscar winning role in "Monster's Ball"). Friend peppers Fate with questions designed to paint him in a negative light while Friend's religious girlfriend Pagan Lace (Penelope Cruz, sporting a 333 tattoo on her hand - does half of 666 imply she's an angel?) tries to save Tom from himself.
There's lots to chew on in "Masked & Anonymous." It immediately announces itself as one of those films that need to be seen multiple times to pick up on all the references with a quick shot of a building lobby directory that, among others, lists Dr. Sardonicus - dermatology. But watching it is a wildly uneven experience. Director Charles doesn't attain a cohesive acting style from his cast. Goodman, for example, gets into Sweetheart's skin, literally sweating desperation while Lange takes a more satirical stance. Dylan, who is amazingly coherent at least, is a stone-faced cipher. Bridges puts a more urgent and cynical spin on his Dude for a Friend who is actually foe. Val Kilmer is delightfully weird as a philosophical animal wrangler. Wilson, the first actor to be cast, is the most miscast and the less said about Cruz the better. Chris Penn ("Rush Hour") and Christian Slater ("Windtalkers") provide some comic relief as crew guys and Ed Harris ("The Hours") has a terrific scene as Oscar Vogel, a blackfaced minstrel ghost who speaks to Fate in the rafters. The film also features Cheech Marin, Steven Bauer, Tracey Walter and Fred Ward and should provide a heap of connectors for "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" players.
Production designer Bob Ziembicki ("Boogie Nights") creates an unnamed country that looks a lot like Mexico and Central America - the presidential palace is actually Casa del Mexicano in East LA which features the colors of the Mexican flag on its dome. Art director Kristan Andrews's ("Blue Car") sets seem inspired by a bunker mentality befitting a state of siege decorated by (Bob Kensinger) a gypsy fortune teller from Tijuana. Abigail Murray's costume designs symbolically define the characters.
In "Masked & Anonymous" a people's voice is drowned out by corruption from within their midst and the innocents who don't think about dying are savagely killed by those who should protect them. The screenplay is rumored to have been cowritten by Dylan, but Dylan's voice is heard most strongly through his music. The film is a lot like a three-ring circus - sometimes the side show is better than the main event.
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