A mad monster party, a stoner’s dystopian doodle, an album-climaxing mega-dirge visualized as open-bar Hollywood dinner party—how to describe the scatterbrained quixotism of Bob Dylan’s Masked & Anonymous? Some kind of “last movie,” it thunders and groans like the final survivor of a dying dinosaur species: namely, shambling rock star indulgences like the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Dylan’s own Renaldo and Clara, and Frank Zappa’s various shots at cinemania. (Zappa’s modest and briefly video-released slapjob Uncle Meat is ironically referenced in M&A by Jeff Bridges’s choleric journalist/jawsmith as a forgotten 12-hour epic.) Written by Dylan and director Larry Charles (a sitcom producer) under preposterous pseudonyms—hence the otherwise irrelevant title—the film is first and foremost a trash-can monument to Dylan’s aging coolness; the actors and the money arrived simply because he asked. Predictably, the product is pretentious and self-destructive, as disinterested in storytelling as it is brimming with misanthropic speechifying only a pop Mahatma could get away with.
“Whatever is too stupid to say,” Joseph Addison wrote in the early 1700s, “can be sung.” Though M&A is sprinkled throughout with Dylan numbers—all of them bouncy honky-tonkers—most of what should’ve been sung is said instead. “It’s tough to get to the top—there’s a long line at the elevator,” says Bridges’s bellicose Tom Friend. “So let’s take the stairs,” replies his obsessively Catholic girlfriend (Penélope Cruz). Once Val Kilmer shows up in Jim Morrison drag to rant hashily about eco-tragedy, the anticipation of forward motion and common sense dies a harrowed death. The context is a vaguely futuristic America styled like a Latin American brutocracy, complete with death squads, off-screen rebel war, dying presidente (with Pinochet uniform and Saddam mustache), peasants as scenery, and propaganda posters. Dylan is Jack Fate (educated adults came up with these character names), paroled from a cellar prison to play in an ill-defined benefit concert for the poor, organized by sleazy promoter Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) out of a trailer office.
The president dies, Ed Harris shows up as a ghost in blackface—do not ask, I cannot tell you—and everyone (including Angela Bassett, Christian Slater, and Mickey Rourke as a berserk politico with a Rufus T. Firefly agenda) speaks in bad-noirish-song-lyric cryptograms. The knee-jerk leftist thrust is easy to appreciate but often half-assed—Bridges mumbling that the Vietnam War was actually “lost in the whorehouses of Saigon” is an idiotic sentiment Roger Ailes might go with.
Dylan wanders the same three or four sets looking ready for a colonic; Bob, if you’re this terrified of moving your face on film, why star? Still, we can begin to appreciate him once Bridges, Goodman, and Jessica Lange, as the concert’s vampy agent, telescope-focus their skills on the script’s high-flying poppycock. In that sense, Masked & Anonymous is an actor’s iron-man challenge, but only Giovanni Ribisi, with a back-of-the-bus speech about the betrayals of insurgent and counter-insurgent politics, finds a genuine moment. All the same, for some unfathomable reason, Dylan’s autumnal self-salute is not particularly difficult to watch. Perhaps it’s not a movie at all, just an album with supplemental home video of the man’s Come Dressed as the Sick Soul of America birthday bash.
Because it’s oblivious to its own essence as a show-biz ghost town, M&A missed an opportunity to be Dylan’s Sunset Boulevard. Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic, disinterred at Film Forum, not only pioneered the portrait of the camphorously demented American shut-in (and therein opened one of the drains leading to Psycho), but brilliantly joined it to the hip of Hollywood. Here was an Industry vision of the Industry’s fake-life boneyard, wherein the meta-world of movies—already so notorious for corrupting the hopes and sensibilities of moviegoers—also condemns its godlings to an empty afterlife. Wilder’s Norma Desmond is the paradigmatic matinee-idol has-been witch-beast, alone with her glory days for so long in a curtained mansion that eventually Gothic clichés are reborn as Beverly Hills pathology. Having kicked around in Hollywood already some 15 years, Wilder saw the silent-screen vestiges writhe in neglect, and though Desmond is played with garish anger by Gloria Swanson after Mary Pickford, Mae West, and Pola Negri had turned down the role, she is actually equal parts of all four, plus a pinch of Norma Shearer.
Wilder’s execution is often commonplace, but the movie’s personality is fabulously dyspeptic, and its central concept is as dangerous and qualmy as any movie of the 1950s. (Salome, Desmond’s supposed comeback vehicle, should’ve been Sunset Boulevard itself. And so on.) It was all certainly more than the post-war moviegoer could bear—everyone, including the Academy, preferred the relatively callow theater-world cynicism of Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. What’s not recognized enough is the indelible, self-sickened performance of William Holden as Desmond’s boy-toy/hired hack. Holden always had a vivid streak of introspective malignity about him, and as the revolted Everyschmuck wandering into a web of dank dreams, his acquiescence to Hollywood—to even its castoffs and horny mad hags—is so queasy you can smell him rotting from the inside.
I smelled something else during Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, although it wasn’t quite the ulcerous fart generated by the first Lara Croft entry. Shall we merely say that outside of a few leonine gazes and throaty chuckles, Angelina Jolie remains more magazine cover than actress (or movie star), and the franchise she supports is more Nintendo after-school time killer than rousing adventure cycle. Comprised mostly of helicopter shots, five-line dialogue exchanges, and truly idiotic stunt-person calisthenics, this Croft continues the shameless Indiana Jones cadging; this time, the struggle is to locate Pandora’s Box (!) in the Tanzanian mountains before an evil Nobel Prize winner (!), whose laboratory is in a Hong Kong shopping mall (!), finds it and sells it to terrorists (!). It wouldn’t be fair to gripe about the hundreds of plot holes; the whole thing is hole. According to Norma Desmond, by 1950 American pictures “got small.” Take this Croft as a typical factory item and you could say that by now, they hardly exist at all.