Masked and Anonymous (2003)


There’s never a shortage of famous people sauntering around at the Sundance Film Festival, but even veteran festival-goers are occasionally subject to being starstruck. It just has to be someone really big. In 2003, it was Bob Dylan.

The music legend was in Park City with Masked and Anonymous, a film he starred in and had pseudonymously co-written. It had a huge cast of famous actors who had jumped at the chance to do something, anything, with Bob Dylan, and the mood at Sundance was very much the same. What’s the movie about? Doesn’t matter! It stars Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan himself will be at the premiere. WE NEED TO SEE THIS!

I didn’t see the film until its theatrical release several months later, but Roger Ebert was at that premiere, and he reported that everyone, even seen-it-all Hollywood types, were giddy about Dylan’s presence. The audience gave him a standing ovation just for walking onto the stage before the movie.

And then everyone saw the movie. They hated it. Boy, did they hate it. Ebert gave it half a star. Other reviews (here’s the Rotten Tomatoes page) were even less favorable: “A strong contender for the worst movie of the century” (Lou Lumenick, New York Post); “A train wreck, and an overbearing train wreck at that” (Ty Burr, Boston Globe); “An unholy, incoherent mess” (A.O. Scott, New York Times).

It was impossible not to have heard how badly the film had bombed, but I tried to keep an open mind when I watched it myself. Maybe I would like this thing that nearly everyone else had hated. It had happened before!

Not this time, though…

What I said then:

“A nearly incomprehensible vanity piece starring Bob Dylan and about a million other celebrities who apparently really, really wanted to be in a film with Bob Dylan, even if the film was useless…. Some only make brief appearances to ramble for a while about something, with Dylan forced to stand there squintily and sort of listen…. Dylan himself says little; mostly he observes. When he does talk, it’s often to say something absurd…. There’s a lot of enigmatic stuff like that here. You pile up enough enigmatic stuff, you’re going to have one big, senseless movie…. It’s the sort of nonsense that’s intriguing for about 15 minutes, simply because its incoherence approaches a surreal level. But then the novelty wears off, and it settles into being the worst thing a movie can be: boring.” Grade: D- [complete review]

The movie faded into oblivion and did not, as far as I can tell, develop any kind of cult following. Nonetheless, Rotten Tomatoes reported that 19 of the reviews on record — 25 percent! — were positive. They couldn’t all be Bob Dylan fanatics who automatically adore everything he does, could they?

I read several of these reviews before re-watching the movie. I wanted to know what the film’s supporters saw in it so that I could look for those things too. The reviews by Stephanie Zacharek, Nick Davis, and Ann Hornaday were the most illuminating, each written by someone who found the movie fascinating, if problematic.

The re-viewing:

The consensus among those who praised the film seemed to be that they liked its rambling, shuffling, obtuse oddness. The word “messy” comes up a lot. Everyone acknowledged not entirely knowing what it was about (something the filmmakers and actors likewise acknowledge in the DVD extras); the difference between them and the rest of us was that they enjoyed the puzzlement.

I’m down with that. I can go along with something baffling and oblique, not expecting it to come together in any kind of meaningful way, especially if I know up front to brace myself for that. Sometimes it’s a pleasure just being in the characters’ world. With this philosophy in mind, Masked and Anonymous isn’t that far off from Nashville or any of Robert Altman’s other sprawling ensemble comedies, at least in terms of style.

That was my mindset going in for the re-watching. And you know what? I kind of liked it this time. Dylan is enigmatic and doesn’t add a lot (except when he’s singing), but he’s surrounded — and outweighed in terms of screen time — by such charismatic folks as John Goodman, Jessica Lange, and Jeff Bridges, all of them fully committed to the pale aphorisms that comprise much of the dialogue.

Furthermore, the movie takes place in a world that is intriguingly bizarre. It’s America, more or less, but now run by a dictator who looks like a South American despot, complete with military uniform and thick, black mustache. The TV network (singular) is run by the government. There has been a revolution resulting in many casualties. Sure enough, I found that I enjoyed hanging out in this surreal environment enough to compensate for the lack of any narrative coherence.

My original review stressed how all the actors seemed gleeful just to be in Dylan’s presence, and how it was such a useless vanity project. But I didn’t see that this time. It didn’t feel self-indulgent to me (even though it clearly is), nor did Dylan seem aloof (even though he probably is). It felt like Dylan and some actors were having fun making a weird little movie, the actors expressing their happiness through actorly exuberance, Dylan expressing his by occasionally kind of smiling.

Do I still hate this movie?

I do not. I wouldn’t exactly say I “like” it, either, but I appreciate it, and there are things about it that are compelling to watch. I agree with Stephanie Zacharek, who said she loved the movie but warned against watching it repeatedly and overanalyzing it. She said, “My advice is this: See it in one glorious shot, grab as much from it as you can and run like hell.” Grade: C