Much like Bob Dylan, Judge Mina Rhodes is a curmudgeonly artist. She has better hair, though.
Todd Haynes makes a fictionalized, visually overblown "biopic" about a legendary rock icon. Again.
Facts of the Case
Bob Dylan, who I am informed is some kind of musician of some reknown, gets the Todd Haynes treatment: six characters, played by six different actors, each representing part of the "Dylan legend": first up is Marcus Carl Franklin, a young black boy portraying Dylan's fictionalized backstory the singer mischieviously fed reporters. Going by the name "Woody Guthrie", the brilliant little urchin hobos across the country after escaping a juvenile detention facility, carrying (of course) a "This Machine Kills Fascists" guitar case, working at carnivals, and wowing everyone with his stupendous guitar playing skills. Meanwhile, in early 60's Greenwich village, Jack Rollins (Christian Bale, Batman Begins) wows the local folk music scene with his stupendous guitar treatises about the social ills of the time, before becoming a Born Again Christian preacher, wowing the local gospel scene with his stupendous anthems testifying to the power of the Lord-uh. Jack also becomes the subject of his own biopic, in which he is played by Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain), a counterculture actor who is experiencing marital troubles with his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Then, in London, Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) giggles with the Beatles, twitches and fidgets, vomits, hangs out with Allen Ginsberg (David Cross, sporting a frightening Santa Claus beard), and trades quips with an uppity BBC reporter (Bruce Greenwood) and an ex-flame (Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain). The fifth Dylan (Ben Wishaw, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), "Arthur Rimbaud", a poet, evades questions from interrogators while looking fashionably disheveled. Last is Richard Gere (The Hoax) as "Billy the Kid", a sort of Wild West version of Dylan who…well, doesn't do much of anything.
All are Bob Dylan, but not really.
Let me preface this review with a Reviewer's Bias note: I am not a Bob Dylan fan. While I appreciate Marianne Faithfull's strung-out, edge-of-death, junkie-voiced interpretations of a handful of his songs, which she recorded in the early 70's while homeless and living on a bomb site in Soho (now THERE'S a rock star who needs a biopic), Dylan's work on its own, whether it be his original versions or those performed by other artists (and covering him is oh-so fashionable) fails to inspire me much. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he is essentially the the premiere hipster icon, idol to a generation of boring, irony-obsessed middle class white twenty-somethings who superficially feign Bohemian struggle in the East Village, while spending their trust fund money on their folk n' blues CD collections and skin tight jeans that only serve to showcase their lack of physical endowment.
Despite your humble reviewer's less-than-stellar view of Dylan, Todd Haynes is something of a different matter. A filmmaker without any discernable style of his own, his work tends to fall into two categories: rockstar biopics (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Velvet Goldmine, and the subject of this review), or exersizes in directorial style-hijacking (Safe and Far From Heaven—Kubrick and Sirk, respectively). Safe was an excellent film, but despite its Kubrickian flavor, pales when compared to the actual works of its source of inspiration. Far From Heaven, however, is a rare example of the student surpassing the teacher—a Douglas Sirk film that is better than an actual Douglas Sirk film. Both Safe andFar From Heaven starred the great Julianne Moore, and Haynes continues the tradition of casting her in his films with I'm Not There. Unfortunately, the level of quality contained in Haynes's previous outing does not carry over this time around, despite Moore's welcome (if too fleeting) presence.
I'm Not There follows in the same vein as Velvet Goldmine, Haynes's "tribute" to David Bowie and his circle—fictionalized, of course, featuring (aptly) lots of music, showy cinematography, and vampiric period fetishism. So it was with that film, so it is with I'm Not There—only this time around, Haynes has made a film even more annoying, and also by way of Todd Solondz's Palindromes (multiple actors—some of them the opposite gender or of a different race!—portraying different versions of what is essentially the same character). When Solondz did his self-indulgent multi-actor, same-character stunt, at least it all centered around one specific character, ensuring that, whether they liked her or not, the audience had something to focus on. By fracturing Dylan into six different personas, Haynes has shot himself in the foot; if one of these Dylan characters doesn't work, that's 1/5th of the film already sunk. Imagine what kind of film results when 5/6ths of it doesn't work, and there you have the fatal flaw of I'm Not There.
The cast portraying this sextet of Not-Dylan's includes a handful of big names who, aside from a certain top-billed Oscar winner, don't do much: Christian Bale affects bad posture and avoids eye contact, Richard Gere chases his dog and rides a horse, while Heath Ledger once again mistakes inexpressive macho posturing for acting. The lesser knowns of the cast, Ben Wishaw and young Marcus Carl Franklin, don't fare much better; Wishaw glowers and smokes while delivering a few groaners, and while Franklin gives a good performance for an actor of his experience, the gears can be seen turning behind his folksy line readings. The aforementioned Julianne Moore brings a bit of warmth to the proceedings, as a sort-of Joan Baez, but her five minutes of screentime do little to alleviate the headache this two hour and fifteen minute gasbag is apt to induce. Cate Blanchett is the only successful Not-Dylan, and the Jude section of the film is by far the strongest (perhaps because Haynes begins to emulate Fellini, and he always works best when he's not being himself). As good as Blanchett's performance is from a mechanical standpoint, however, one can't help but be slightly put off by its reliance on mere imitation; Blanchett is chameleonic to be sure, but those wonderous little lizards never actually put soul into their color changes, and the same is rather true for Blanchett as well. Surprisingly, the film's sole honest performance comes from Charlotte Gainsbourg, who infuses her neglected wife character with a kind of grounded, weary realism and sadness that sticks out like a sore thumb—she is a brief bit of authentic humanity where everyone else in the film fails.
Perhaps the most annoying aspect of I'm Not There is its occasional flights of psuedo-intellectualism which go nowhere (do such things ever?), and the fact that the six Not-Dylan's add up to nothing—which brings us back again to Palindromes. With Solondz's film, the main gimmick at least fed into the cynical message the filmmaker conveyed; Haynes, on the other hand, seems to use it as an excuse to rope in Oscar-bait actors and infuse his particular brand of biopic with some empty edginess. Too bad it all adds up to nothing. There is no essential truth about Dylan, and no emotional tug on the viewer. Dylan isn't there, and neither is a film with any real insight.
Genius Products brings I'm Not There to DVD in a two disc special edition that is even more bloated and self-important than the film is itself. The technical presentation is first-rate: the 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen picture is stunningly good, with few—if any—flaws, and the same excellence extends to the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, which showcases the constant barrage of Dylan music quite nicely. Before one even experiences how lovely things look and sound in this set, however, there is the Introduction to the Film to wade through, which is essentially a collection of text screens that provide fawning essays about the film and backstories for each Not-Dylan (it is a separate menu option, and is not played before the film). Haynes provides a commentary for the film, which is informative, even if it does nothing to change one's opinion. On-Screen Song Lyrics and a Song Selection menu are also available on Disc 1. Moving on to Disc 2, one finds a collection of extras that are, admittedly, quite strong, and almost make the film feel better and more interesting than it really is. Concerning the film itself are a set of Deleted Scenes (of only slightly lesser quality than those that made the cut), Alternate and Extended Scenes and Outtakes, which are watchable, but will only be of interest to those who are already deeply invested in the film. Audition tapes for Ben Wishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin are also viewable (the bigger names, of course, probably didn't make such things). Aside from those, a Q&A interview with Todd Haynes is included, as is a featurette concerning the film's red carpet premiere. On the more musical side, there is a Subterranean Homesick Blues music video, featuring the cast, and a look at the creation of the soundtrack (In Stores Now!, natch). Rounding things out is the "Dylanography", an encyclopedic compendium of Dylan's creative output (for current and potential Dylan-o-philes only), as well some stills and trailers. Considering the wealth and quality of the extras present in this set, it is safe to say that fans of the film can confidently purchase it with little worry of a dreaded double dip in the future.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps one has to be a Dylan-devotee to appreciate I'm Not There. No doubt vast sections of the film will have little meaning to those who haven't scoured the singer's lyrics obsessively, and read every detail of his backstory. Or maybe not; a friend who saw the film during its theatrical run described it as "aggravating hipster bullshit." And she worships Dylan.
Todd Haynes is guilty of making an obnoxious, excruciatingly long music video with little substance. Genius Products, on the other hand, is acquitted for polishing this gaudy piece until it shines in an almost attractive light.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Feature Commentary by Director/Co-Writer Todd Haynes
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