I'm Not There (United States, 2007)
Few figures in 20th century music are more deserving of the label "enigma" than Bob Dylan. Reclusive, frequently misunderstood, and never pigeonholed into a niche, Dylan has remained a mercurial figure for the entirety of his long career. So when filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven) announced he was going to make a film that would deconstruct Dylan, there was reason for optimism. Unfortunately, the muddled reality, called I'm Not There, doesn't live up to the promise. To capture the essence of a sometimes pretentious, occasionally unfathomable artist, Haynes has made a sometimes pretentious, occasionally unfathomable film. Dylan fans will love it for the music, but that's about all the production has going for it. In the end, many viewers will leave with two impressions: the music is as good as it always has been and Dylan is a bigger asshole than one might have suspected.
Haynes' approach sounds gimmicky even when you consider his reasoning. In order to portray the different aspects of such a complex and ever-changing figure, he has elected to break the man into six separate individuals, each representing a different Dylan. These characters are played by different actors and have different names. There's no connective tissue between them and the moniker "Bob Dylan" is never used. Anyone attending this film blindly, not understanding it is supposed to be a fictionalized bio-pic of Dylan, may have no idea that these six characters are supposed to be the same person during different time periods. There's not much on screen to suggest this. In fact, there's not much to indicate why the movie keeps jumping back and forth between these people and their fractured storylines.
There are five main "Dylans." The youngest goes by the name of "Woody Guthrie," and is played by a young black actor named Marcus Carl Franklin. At age 11, he wanders around with his guitar stealing rides on boxcars and learning how to write and sing folk songs. The next Dylan is Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a folk singer who eventually converts to Christianity and uses his music in God's service. Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) is a drug-addled star who has turns his back on the songs that made him famous and repudiates his past. He's a nasty piece of work; it's a wonder no one knifes the bastard. Dylan #4 is Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), a movie star (something Dylan never was) and family man. He settles down with Claire (Charlotte Gainsborg) and gives fatherhood a try. It lasts nine years. Finally, he heads out into the middle of nowhere to go by the name of Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) and try to vanish into obscurity. The sixth Dylan is Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), but he only shows up a few times during faux interviews.
I'm Not There is as intentionally disjointed a motion picture as you'll find. It jumps around in time, switching from black-and-white to color seemingly at random (the Blanchett and Whishaw scenes are in b&w; everything else is in color). Haynes' portrait provides no real insight into Dylan (that's arguably the point) and, to further confuse things, a lot of what's in the film has been made-up so, without a cheat-sheet, it's difficult to determine what's fact and what's fiction. In the end, everything is a muddle. Character development is nonexistent, because it's impossible to connect with someone fragmented into six pieces and played by six actors. The only character in this film to generate any sympathy is Clark's wife, Claire. Charlotte Gainsbourg transcends Haynes' off-putting approach to connect with the audience.
Are there good performances here? Yes. Cate Blanchett, playing the gender-bender game, is superior to her five male counterparts, bringing bile, disillusionment, and passion to her role. She livens things up when she's around. The film gains energy it otherwise lacks. That becomes evident when it switches away from her. The other Dylans vary from solid (Bale, Ledger, Franklin) to irrelevant (Whishaw, Gere). Gere's participation is especially problematic. It's not that he gives a bad performance but every time he appears on screen, it brings proceedings to a halt - the Billy the Kid scenes simply don't work. I have already mentioned Gainsbourg, whose performance is top-notch.
As one might expect, the soundtrack is littered with Dylan tunes, both familiar and obscure. Most are not covers but are performances by the artist. (For those who, like me, find Dylan's voice to be a trifle irritating, this does not improve the experience of sitting in a theater for 135 minutes. I'm on record as saying that the man is a superior writer but an inferior singer.) For those who don't make the connection between the actors and their supposed subject, the preponderance of Dylan music should be more than a clue. At least we don't have to endure the over-the-top song-and-dance numbers of Across the Universe.
Haynes is not trying to make a mainstream motion picture. He isn't attempting to generate a narrative. He is throwing up vignettes and hoping that the random collage results in something approaching a character study. This kind of experimental technique might be fine for a film school project, but it falls short of justifying a $10 ticket expenditure. There are those who will applaud what Haynes and his actors have accomplished, and I can understand its appeal on an intellectual level. But I am not a supporter of film without form or art without structure; those who share that opinion may find this to be as tedious an experience as I did.
I'm Not There (United States, 2007)
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Julianne Moore, Bruce Greenwood
Screenplay: Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Music: Bob Dylan
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company