- Rated R
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All photos © The Weinstein Co.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
or anyone expecting to come out of Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” knowing a little more about musical reformist Bob Dylan than they did before, abandon all hope. The film doesn’t even come close to being this year’s “Walk the Line,” nor does it ever aspire to be. Instead, it’s a courageously artistic approach at explaining the many eccentricities of Dylan’s life and career through a series of six different vignettes. The end result, however, is a convoluted mess that doesn’t only jump between the many personalities of the prophetic singer/songwriter, but between time as well, and though Dylan fanatics will likely understand what Haynes is trying to accomplish here, everyone else will find themselves completely and utterly lost.
Taking place during the course of several decades and shot in both color and black & white, the film features six actors portraying Bob Dylan at different times of his life. Perhaps the most controversial casting of the group is Marcus Carl Franklin as a young, black musician named Woody. Blessed with the soul of an old man, Woody sings about social issues far before his time, and is even advised to look ahead to the troubles of his own generation. From here, the film splits off into several different directions. Christian Bale plays Jack, a Dylanesque folk singer at the center of a documentary, Heath Ledger plays the Hollywood actor who portrays Jack in a movie, and Cate Blanchett (in full Dylan drag) is a popular musician reviled by his fans for changing his sound. Rounding out the cast is Richard Gere as a former outlaw and Ben Whishaw as a young philosopher – two roles that would have made for a shorter, better structured film had they been left out.
In fact, of the six actors portraying Dylan, only two of them are absolutely necessary; namely because their characters are the most literal representations of the musician. Bale, who appears in a very limited role, still delivers one of the better performances of the film, while Blanchett absolutely nails Dylan’s every mannerism as the lone female of the group. As a result, it’s Blanchett’s segment that’s the most enjoyable, and not only because of her remarkable physical transformation. The story itself is the strongest of the bunch and consumes nearly half of the film’s tedious 135 minute runtime. It’s also peppered with celebrity cameos like Alan Ginsberg (David Cross), Brian Jones and The Beatles, the latter of which pop up in a funny scene reminiscent of Fab Four movies like “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Haynes would have been better off sticking to this one version of Dylan, because it’s clearly the most appealing, but instead, the audience is bombarded with ridiculous characters like Gere’s gypsy cowboy, whose only reason for existence seems to be that the musician starred in Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.” Seriously? An entire storyline is dedicated to Dylan’s short-lived film career in a role that wasn’t even as Billy the Kid? Then why is Gere playing the famous outlaw? And what are we to make of Ledger’s Hollywood actor if this ground is already being covered in another part of the film?
These are only but a few of the questions you’ll ask yourself as the seconds slowly tick by, and while I respect what Haynes is trying to do with the material, it’s unfair of him to assume that everyone who sees this film already knows the ins and outs of Dylan’s career. Those who do might be able to make sense of the chaos, but those who don't will be left feeling a lot like Bruce Greenwood’s British journalist character when he exclaims to a mumbling Blanchett, “I don’t think I follow.”
Two-Disc Collector's Edition DVD Review:
For those hoping that the DVD release of “I’m Not There” would offer a more straightforward explanation of Todd Haynes’ cinematic love letter to Bob Dylan, think again. The two-disc collector’s edition features plenty about the actual making of the film – from an audio commentary with writer/director Haynes to audition tapes for Marcus Carl Franklin and Ben Whishaw – but it fails to double as a much-needed Cliff’s Notes. Instead, we’re treated to things like character profiles (“Who’s Not There”), film essays (“Tangled Up in Clues,” “This Is Not a Bob Dylan Movie”), and extended musical sequences. That may make for a great collection of bonus material, but it doesn’t make understanding the film any easier.
Still, there’s plenty of great content to be found, including a featurette on making the soundtrack, a Dylanography (comprised of a chronology, discography and filmography for the singer/songwriter), a filmmaker’s notebook filled with storyboards and notes, and the original proposal that Haynes sent to Dylan. Rounding out the set is a gag reel, a compilation of interviews with Haynes, and a tribute to Heath Ledger. It’s all good stuff – even for those that didn’t enjoy the film.