Too Masked, Too Anonymous
With such an amazingly talented cast, Masked and Anonymous elicits high expectations from viewers. Big names like Bob Dylan, Luke Wilson, Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, and Jessica Lange open doors and draw people into the theater. But these actors all have minimal roles here -- and within 15 minutes of the film's beginning at the screening I attended, one by one, people started leaving the theater.
This political satire takes place in a country caught up in a civil war. Uncle Sweetheart (Goodman), a Don King-like character with more words tumbling from his mouth that rocks in a quarry, is organizing a benefit concert. No one seems to care why he is so intent on this concert or why he springs traveling troubadour Jack Fate (Bob Dylan) from jail to be the star attraction. There is supposed to be some connection to the idea that Uncle Sweetheart expects to bring peace to a country that is entrenched by chaos, lawlessness and pandemonium. But what kind of concert could EVER have that power?
Larry Charles, the Emmy Award-winning writer and producer of Seinfeld and Mad About You, makes his directing debut with this film. The movie is touted as possessing such creative audacity, such a flow of ideas and thought-provoking observations transported by a barrage of wit, performance, and, of course, song, that you are bound to emerge from this singular film feeling both challenged and satisfied.
While I don't think those people leaving the theater felt satisfied, I was certainly challenged -- to understand what was going on. In an interview with Charles and Luke Wilson about the film, I asked Charles about the uncohesiveness of the plot and the statement in the press material that said, "You won't get it all the first time around."
"I wanted it to be unsettled and off balanced to see what kind of emotions that might elicit," Charles said. "One of the most satisfying responses I get is, 'I can't wait to see it again. Just like the way you look at a great painting, listen to a piece of music or read a poem, its resonance meaning increases on further reflection."
If a moviegoer had hours to reflect on a film after watching it, this scenario might work, but in today's fast-paced life, that's an indulgence we rarely have.
Some satisfaction comes from Bob Dylan playing Jack Fate. Wearing a custom-made western outfit from the 40s, Fate meanders around the country in chaos and strums away, unaffected by the devastation he sees. Although he's no eye-candy, I enjoyed listening to Dylan's music, and seeing him in a movie after a 15-year absence on the big screen. If anyone can relate to this story, it's Dylan, an icon who became famous singing about the ills of America in the 60s.
Luke Wilson, the first to sign on to the project, plays Bobby Cupid. "I think Jack Fate really likes Bobby Cupid," he said. "He's kind of like a street dog that's been kicked around and doesn't really have a home. All he needs is somebody to give him direction."
Wilson, who hails from a family of actors (Owen & Andrew), explained why he was the first actor on board. "As an actor you get scripts to read, and sometimes I can't even read them. But I loved this story and the words, and it goes without saying it was like nothing I ever read, kind of Biblical, a western, the kind of thing I'd like to do."
Masked and Anonymous features so many key talents you can't keep track of them or figure out what they're doing in this film. They come in and out of the movie with the speed of performers in a three-ring circus. Ever seen Ed Harris in Al Jolson-style blackface? Jessica Lange plays a TV producer, but she looks and acts more like a hooker. A fine talent far too long away from the screen, her role was highly disappointing.
The far-fetched story unravels in jerky pieces, and interested viewers must be willing to put in their time to fit those pieces together. And, when that fails -- to see it again.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "PG-13" for some language and brief violence.)