When it came out 20 years ago, the Bob Dylan movie "Masked and Anonymous" was considered an embarrassment, a superstar's vanity project that flopped at the box office (it barely cleared $500,000 in ticket sales). The critical consensus was (and remains), according to the Rotten Tomatoes aggregation site, that it's "unintelligible and self-indulgent." It carries a 24% rating on the RT site.
But over the years a lot of people have changed their minds about the movie.
"I saw this at Sundance in 2003 and roared much of the way through; emerging from the screening I pronounced it 'the Plan 9 From Outer Space' of Dylan movies,'" veteran critic Glenn Kenny wrote when he reviewed the 2020 Blu-ray release on his Some Came Running blog. " ... I think I was being kind of a d*** about it. Not to say that the strained allegory suddenly holds up ... but its points seem rather more salient now for some reason. In any event, the star-studded procession certainly qualifies as A Unique Object. Digitally shot, it looks more so here than I recollect it looking back in the day. And the extras help in making sense of the whole thing: Co-writer and director Larry Charles ... recalls the project's conception as a 'Bob Dylan slapstick comedy.' He also complains about the reviews. Sorry Larry!"
I've heard others express similar misgivings -- movies like "Masked and Anonymous" are easy to pan and just about every review is more about the critic and the critic's state of mind than the work under consideration. Movies -- all works of art, really -- are living things that mean and matter differently throughout their half-lives (eventually all will be forgotten, even Michael Jordan and Paul McCartney) and that while some opinions are better than others, there's no definitive last word on anything.
I could have gleefully ripped "Masked and Anonymous" apart had I been in the mood to (that would show 'em) but for some reason I tried to take it seriously and ended up writing a review that RT counted as one of the few "fresh" ones.
My review was mixed; I made a point of saying that I wouldn't recommend the film "to anyone but the most rabid of the Bobheads." On the other hand, I was intrigued and fascinated by the movie, which is not the same thing as being entertained. I'd rather listen to its soundtrack -- which is genuinely thrilling -- than watch the movie again. And maybe inflict it on my LifeQuest class in July.
One of the reasons we might look at "Masked and Anonymous" differently today from when it came out is because its director went on to make the mockumentary "Borat!" with Sacha Baron Cohen, with whom he also collaborated on 2009's "Brüno" and 2012's "The Dictator." Before "Masked and Anonymous," Charles, a stand-up comedian and comedy writer, was primarily known as Larry David's right-hand man on "Seinfeld," and one might have assumed that he was simply functioning as Dylan's caddy during the production of "Masked and Anonymous."
From this distance, I'm willing to believe it was a more balanced collaboration. Charles and Dylan (under the respective pseudonyms Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov) wrote the film together, and it feels like it.
In an interview he gave to reelmoviecritic.com's Shelley Cameron to promote the film (tinyurl.com/4eezk6bf), Charles remembered working with Dylan on the script:
'WITH BOB, THE PERSON'
"It was fun playing in that sandbox. One of the things that Bob insists on is being dealt with as Bob. Dylan is 'that thing out there.' When you go into the room with him from the first day, you're with Bob, the person. That person is a human being, and part of the curse of being Bob Dylan is that in order to be that he can't really enjoy his own work. He can't look back on it and enjoy the nostalgia of it. He does not get the pleasure out of it that everybody else gets. He is very unique person in the artistic landscape, so he is not totally a normal person, but in a good way.
"To me ... and I'm sure he would hate to hear this, he was a guru, a total teacher. He would say things to me that would just change my whole way of thinking. There is now a line for me. I think of my life as before this movie and my life after this movie. That's how much of a life-changing event this was for me. He is a shy person but in a room alone, we talked for hours and laughed a lot. He has a great sense of humor. A lot of that stuff is in the movie."
The movie is itself a lot.
It's probably less a movie than a demonstration of the abiding charismatic power of Bob Dylan; the depth of the cast assembled for this oddity speaks to that. "Masked and Anonymous" is neither plotless nor pointless, but the plot is slight, and the point is simply that if Bob Dylan asks the greater part of mid-list Hollywood to be in his movie, they will work for scale.
A DELIRIOUS JOY
At times a kind of delirious joy seems to infect the project: In one scene we watch Val Kilmer, seemingly caught in mid-morph between Jim Morrison to the porn star John Holmes (who he portrayed in "Wonderland, which opened in October 2003), rudely handling a rabbit. He lifts a cleaver, chops down, blood splatters, Dylan -- as enigmatic singer convict Jack Fate -- flinches. Now the camera seems to slip, and we see Kilmer -- not Kilmer's character, but Kilmer himself, don't ask how we know exactly -- laughing and nuzzling the unharmed bunny, a little documentary clip from the making of a featurette spliced into the theatrical release.
As I wrote in 2003, "Masked and Anonymous" isn't a mean film; however hard it blusters, it understands precisely how preposterously it is behaving. It is a kind of elaborate joke, made to amuse a certain jaded elite. You don't have to like it to admire its spirit.
But while it's far from the joyless sludge some critics characterize it as, it isn't exactly a good movie either. It only pretends to have ideas, and the slightly out-of-phase Latinized America it presents -- an America seemingly distorted through a bizarro delay pedal -- has no genuine political traction. The dying El Presidente is some amalgam of Saddam and Pinochet, not the projected trajectory of George W. Bush. America may be sick -- "Masked and Anonymous " may be a symptom of the sickness -- but Dylan and screenwriting partner Charles don't proffer enlightenment.
DARK AND MYSTERIOUS
They got a bunch of actors together to deliver a bunch of lines that have nothing to do with anything other than suggesting something dark and mysterious. "Masked and Anonymous" hints it knows a profound secret, and if you are wise and brave enough you'll be able to puzzle it out the way the internet geeks have deconstructed "Mulholland Drive."
It's not hard to follow the putative narrative of "Masked and Anonymous." Fate is sprung from prison by promoters Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) and Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange) to perform at a benefit concert. Reporter Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges) is dispatched to cover the concert; he brings along his crucifix-wearing girlfriend Pagan Lace (Penelope Cruz).
In the meantime, Fate's old friend Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson) deserts his bartending job to take Jack a guitar that once belonged to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Various and sundry others fret and strut for a minute upon the stage, mainly bouncing off Dylan's oddly inert performance, a tight-wound, uncomfortable bit of posturing that wouldn't seem out of place in an Edward D. Wood movie. (Like Kenny, I saw a "Plan 9" in the production.)
Some of them, like Giovanni Ribisi and Mickey Rourke, nevertheless manage affecting moments.
IT ISN'T A BAD MOVIE
"Masked and Anonymous" isn't a bad movie either -- it's just not a disciplined or particularly well-written one. It is best read as a collection of moments, mortared together with some stirring music, both from Dylan and his band and from others on the soundtrack. (There's a stirring a cappella performance of "The Times They Are a' Changin'" that isn't included on the film's excellent soundtrack album.)
"Masked and Anonymous" is intentionally weird, and has about it a quality of heavy-handed, obstinate opacity that argues against it being taken seriously by any right-minded adult. It is impossible to believe Dylan is serious without discounting the artist's power.
Dylan is not a joke, but he is a jokester, and it's in that spirit he made (or had made) "Masked and Anonymous."
It's a comedy. Get it? It's OK if you don't.