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Bob Dylan is joined by John Goodman and Luke Wilson in Masked and Anonymous. Courtesy photo
Bob Dylan's latest cinematic indulgence is tangled up in clues that lead nowhere

He always told us the times were changin', but even Bob Dylan probably wasn't imagining they would get this weird: Power has changed hands, and America is now some sort of Latin American war zone, ruled by a regalia-clad general, filled with guerilla revolutionaries and secret government counter-revolutionaries, and overflowing with homeless refugees. A single monopolistic Network owns the televisual air, but radio waves have been infected by cracked-wisdom-spewing sidewalk prophets.

The oddest thing, though, isn't that all public spaces now seem caught in the middle of some half-hearted, under-funded construction project - it's that the whole world now talks like Bob Dylan.

The screenplay for Masked and Anonymous may be credited to "Rene Fontaine & Sergei Petrov," but there is little doubt that those are noms de plume for Dylan and Larry Charles. In the unlikely event that they are not, the filmmakers would do well to encourage the rumor - because this rambling, shambley mess is an unqualified failure as entertainment, and any hope it has for cult status rests entirely in the hands of hardcore Dylanologists, who will undoubtedly scour its 107 minutes for in-jokes, references to the songwriter's back catalog, and bits of arcana that might - when viewed in terms of insights patched together from the lyrics to an underappreciated '70s album, a rare interview given to a German newspaper, and the hidden themes of his quasi-novel Tarantula - be thought to shed new light on this over-analyzed, under-enjoyed genius' soul.

Dylan fans with lives, however, may hope that this is another in the cryptic codger's long history of put-ons and complex evasions. It isn't flattering to the artist to suggest that Masked is the best he can do, screenplay-wise. But if that is the case, how did he convince financiers to invest millions of dollars to produce this prank? Easy. He's Bob Dylan.

And, by the virtue of his Dylantude, he has convinced some fine actors to come play dress-up with him. John Goodman wears a powder-blue tux and ruffled shirt, doing his best to breathe some life into a caricatured hapless concert promoter. Jeff Bridges buttons his white shirt to the top, but judging from the dialogue his seen-it-all journalist has to deliver, Dylan must have spent a lot less time trying to figure newspapermen out than vice-versa.

Dir. Larry Charles; writ. "Rene Fontaine & Sergei Petrov"; feat. Bob Dylan, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, Penélope Cruz, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Mickey Rourke (PG-13)
Shot on video, Masked and Anonymous looks like the late-night cable affair it would be without the famous faces. It's amateur hour all the way, baby, and it barely seems to be trying to create an illusion of reality. The direction is clunky: Whenever the screenplay repeats a bit of dialogue in a new context, the camera jumps to the character who originally said it as if to say "See? We have themes here!"

But while the themes have made for some of the last century's greatest songs, they aren't dialogue. Woody Allen's characters all speak like their author, too, but those familiar tics and mannerisms are created to entertain; Dylan's are a poetry that shouldn't be adapted to the demands of a hastily contrived plot. There are some beautiful turns of phrase buried here, but having a bus driver say out of nowhere, "They have no ideology; they turn both Jesus and Judas aside," makes no sense as drama. And as weird as Masked is, it always seems to think it is drama as opposed to some surreal hodgepodge.

Much has been made of the way the film treats Dylan's music: The songs are translated into Spanish, re-cast as hip-hop, or performed live by the man himself. There are moments of performance here that are intriguing - Dylan singing "Dixie" to a wary multi-ethnic crowd, a young black girl singing "The Times" a cappella - but even those are blunted by a production that just doesn't know what way the wind's blowing. •

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