Early on in “Masked and Anonymous,” a minor character makes an observation that the audience can agree with. “Something is starting to smell here,” he says. “I’m beginning to choke on the fumes.” By this time Bob Dylan devotees who revere the singer’s every enigmatic lyric as the equivalent of Holy Writ may still be willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, but anyone else will already recognize it as self-indulgent twaddle; and it only gets worse.
The story–or situation, to be more accurate–is apparently set in a southwestern United States that has become a separate country and is in the midst of a rebellion. A sleazy promoter (John Goodman) is in hock to some threatening loan sharks, and he and his partner (Jessica Lange) decide to put on a televised “benefit” concert. Since they’re unable to persuade any current name talent to participate, they spring from the pokey Jack Fate (Dylan), an over-the-hill but “legendary” star who turns out to be the son of the dying generalissimo-president (replaced in his father’s affection–and inheritance, it would seem–by a fascist played by Mickey Rourke). But all the political stuff is but foggy back story. At the center are the machinations preparatory to the concert, somehow involving a loud-mouthed, hostile reporter (Jeff Bridges), an idealistic guitarist (Luke Wilson) and hordes of other sketchy characters, played cameo-style by such slumming stars as Christian Slater, Penelope Cruz, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Val Kilmer, Cheech Martin and Fred Ward. The result is like “Around the Block in 102 Awful Minutes.”
Throughout all the pretentious but impenetrable babble, the cadaverous Dylan sleep-walks through the part of Fate, supposedly some sort of cowboy messiah, reciting his lines in a dreary monotone that would put one to sleep if he were capable of blurting out more than a few words at a time. He’s more animated in the musical “rehearsal” interludes, though even there he preens with such overweening vanity that one might prefer clicking off the projector bulb and just listening in the dark. For the other cast members, this will not be a distinguished addition to their resumes. Most of them have parts so small as to be negligible, but the unfortunate Goodman and Bridges have substantial roles, and respond to Dylan’s comatose mien by overplaying wildly. (At least one can understand the character of the self-interested promoter; the motives behind the vicious, pointless questions of Bridges’ newsman are completely opaque.) After a debacle like this, all of them might want to take the title to heart and go incognito for a while, but they really needn’t worry; once word gets around, very few people are likely ever to witness their humiliation.
“Masked and Anonymous” is directed–if that’s the appropriate word–by Larry Charles, a TV veteran who’s making his feature debut here. He’s apparently as much in thrall to Dylan as all the other participants in this misguided vanity project, constantly situating the singer at the center of things as though he were an object of veneration. Perhaps he’ll get another opportunity in the future to show his talent. Technically this is a bare-bones effort, looking as though it were shot in a succession of back alleys, empty warehouses and office buildings awaiting demolition.
Near the eagerly-awaited conclusion of “Masked and Anonymous,” Dylan finally offers an observation that will be of use to viewers. “I gave up trying to figure out things a long time ago,” he says. You’d be wise to do likewise if you find yourself trapped in this mess of meaningless, self-important blather.