With "Masked and Anonymous," director Larry Charles and Bob Dylan attempt an epic depiction of America in its death throes, taking their inspiration from the songs of Dylan. The movie, with a script attributed to Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov but actually by Charles and Dylan, attempts to be prophetic and put-on at the same time, thus falling into the ancient snare of trying to have it both ways -- and being unable to pull it off. The look of the film is great, the soundtrack glorious, but more often than not the dialogue is atrocious, featuring a lot of long-winded gobbledygook.
A force in "Seinfeld," "Mad About You" and other TV successes, Charles, in his feature debut, seems in over his head in big-screen allegory, displaying a tendency to confuse satire with facetiousness and inside jokes with slyness. (Where is Robert Altman, the one man who could have gotten away with this project, when we need him?) It would seem the film's title comes from the belief that people hide their true selves from others until they're in a crunch, but what Charles' people are about is obvious from the start.
Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers, production designer Bob Ziembicki, art director Kristan Andrews and set decorator Bob Kensinger do a brilliant, wittily detailed job of evoking an L.A. in the near future, in which various ethnicities have started to synthesize; it's as if the City of Angels had been conflated with Baghdad. The president (Richard Sarafian), a virtual dictator, is dying in his handsome but slightly seedy estate, his longhaired son Eduardo (Mickey Rourke), is all set to grab power and establish a totalitarian state, and there is a lot of rebel skirmishing in the streets.
In this atmosphere of chaos and impending doom, Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman), a bombastic talent manager on the skids, sees a chance for a comeback in organizing a benefit concert on behalf of medical relief and strives to interest tough, skeptical TV producer Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange, spectacular in Thierry Mugler). He admits he doesn't think he can line up "Billy Joel, Springsteen or McCartney," but believes he has a sure-fire idea: spring his old client, the legendary Jack Fate (Dylan), from jail, make him the main attraction, filling in the bill with carnival acts, including a guy in Al Jolson blackface (Ed Harris).
The laconic, well-tailored Jack, while riding a bus from prison back to town, has an exchange with a harried young man (Giovanni Ribisi) who has one of the film's more sensible lines: He explains he was a rebel until he discovered the rebels were actually government-backed, so now he's become a counter-rebel. Accepting the gig without fuss, Jack does not let the signs of decline that surround him disturb his cool, but his mind is on the past, which involves the president and his mistress (Angela Bassett).
In the meantime, Jack's reemergence has caught the attention of the editor (Bruce Dern) of a near-defunct newspaper who assigns burned-out reporter Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges) to interview Jack. (Friend has a devoted, devout lover, played by Penelope Cruz, who is always praying and burning candles but is nevertheless called Pagan Lace.) Friend would seem to be a compendium of every obnoxious reporter Dylan was ever subjected to, hectoring Jack for not appearing at Woodstock and lecturing him on the meaning of Jimi Hendrix's appearance there. One of Jack's young fans (Luke Wilson) is incensed by Friend.
The political situation continues to deteriorate, with its six stars, 16 familiar key supporting players and 21 more actors doing their bits. At least we are treated to Dylan performing eight numbers with his band, which makes us wish we were watching a concert film -- or the real thing -- instead of "Masked and Anonymous," and the soundtrack features a wide selection of Dylan songs covered by others. The loveliest moment in the film, suggesting what might have been, occurs when a little girl (Tinashe Kachingwe) turns up to sing to Jack "The Times They Are A-Changin'. " Not surprisingly, Dylan himself floats above the fray, but since this is his first film in 15 years, it's lamentable that "Masked and Anonymous," which is too heavy-handed to be amusing even when it means to be, is a work of such pretentious self-indulgence.
'Masked and Anonymous'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for some language and brief violence.
Times guidelines: Inappropriate for small children; complex themes.
Jeff Bridges...Tom Friend
Penelope Cruz...Pagan Lace
Bob Dylan...Jack Fate
John Goodman...Uncle Sweetheart
Jessica Lange...Nina Veronica
Luke Wilson...Bobby Cupid
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a BBC Films and Marching Band Productions presentation of a Spitfire Pictures and Grey Water Park production. Director Larry Charles. Producers Nigel Sinclair, Jeff Rosen. Executive producers Anatoly Fradis, Joseph Cohen, Vladimir Dostal, David M. Thompson, Guy East, Marie Cantin, Pietro Scalia. Screenplay Rene Fontaine, Sergei Petrov. Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers. Editor Luis Alvarez y Alvarez, Pietro Scalia. Original music by Bob Dylan. Costumes Abigail Murray. Production designer Bob Ziembicki. Art director Kristan Andrews. Set decorator Bob Kensinger. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379; and the University 6, Campus Drive across from UC Irvine, (800) Fandango, No. 143.