It boasts one of the biggest Hollywood casts ever assembled, was co-written by one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century and directed by Seinfeld alumni Larry Charles, who went on to make blockbuster mockumentaries Borat and Bruno. And yet virtually nobody saw — or even heard of — 2003’s strikingly weird apocalyptic spectacle Masked and Anonymous. The oddness surrounding virtually every facet of its production helps explain why.
According to the credits at the time of release, Masked and Anonymous was written by Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine. It was later revealed that the writers were actually Charles and the performer who plays the film’s protagonist, a mumbling gritty-voiced troubadour named Jack Fate. That performer is none other than Bob Dylan, who over the years has dabbled in the cinematic medium with generally unflattering results, notably as a wooden supporting actor in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and the star/director of the befuddling Renaldo and Clara (1978).
Masked and Anonymous is set in a futuristic America ravaged by crime and destitution. Fate, who has spent many years in the slammer for reasons eventually unravelled, is released on the condition that he plays at a benefit concert to alleviate the financial woes of a sweaty fat cat (John Goodman) and his business partner (Jessica Lange). In addition to Goodman and Lange the film stars Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Chris Penn, Cheech Marin, Mickey Rourke, Angela Bassett, Ed Harris (in blackface) and others. That’s one hell of a cast.
The most simplistic answer to the question of why Masked and Anonymous almost immediately sunk into obscurity is that it wasn’t very good, at least according to the consensus of the small pocket of critics who actually saw it. I found the film fascinatingly bizarre, with a jaunty concert rhythm (the soundtrack is comprised of international covers of Dylan tracks plus some fresh renditions from the man himself). It’s a messy and ambitious one-of-a-kind littered with dialogue that bounces back and forth like a verbal intellectual tennis match and occasionally opens up into long, sprawling philosophical monologues. It’s also a must see for Dylan fans who don’t mind — or better yet, even love — his smokey frog-belching-into-a-cup voice.
There are some stunning self-contained moments, my favourite an interaction between Dylan and Val Kilmer in which the title of the film is explained — or at least eluded to. In a short but memorable performance, Kilmer rambles to Bobby D about the nature of human existence in the context of vanity, ambition, delusion and estrangement from Mother Nature. It’s quite something. Check it out, in two parts below.