November 29, 2007

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I’m Not There (R)
Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger and especially Cate Blanchett are Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, a meandering patchwork of a biopic that doesn’t explicitly reference its subject until the very end.

Each of the “Dylans” gets a different name and a different stage in Dylan’s life to expand upon and play with. There’s Franklin, an 11-year-old African-American, who plays the young artist, mimicking the style of Woody Guthrie and singing about boxcars and union fights until a woman finally tells him to sing about his own time.

There’s Whishaw, a narrator-ish version of the character, with his black and white deposition-style pronouncements, often spoken right at the camera.

Bale is the harmonica-playing earnest folkie who betrays his audience by becoming the electric, sincerity-free Blanchett but later goes back to being Bale, this time a born-again preacher.

Further out of the limelight, Gere is a retired-Billy the Kid version of Dylan, hiding in a western town.

What does it all mean?

The Dylan of today — doing shows at Merchantsauto.com Stadium and appearing in Victoria’s Secret commercials — can easily eclipse all the other Dylans, particularly the one from the early 1960s through the mid 1970s, the one that I and most people in their late 40s and younger really didn’t experience first-hand. By the time I knew who Dylan was, he had been through seversal stages and the work he was doing at any given time was viewed in relation to the work he’d already done. Here, the various Dylans of the late 1950s through the 1980s are laid out, his personas put next to and mingled with each other. We see the layers, the persona he tried to build and the one created by all the years under the spotlight. We see the ravages of fame on marriage (Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the wife to Ledger’s character). We see Dylan in his most stylized version (the Blanchette Dylan, called Jude) do battle with a British TV commentator (Bruce Greenwood), ultimately not able his true middle class, non-rail-riding backgroun
d. All sides of Dylan seem skewed, all sides seem to have created a persona rather than a genuine bit of character growth.

The real standout performance here belongs to Blanchett. She most perfectly captures Dylan without doing a Dylan impersonation. When we see her and David Cross (as Allen Ginsberg) goofing off under a crucifix (why do you do your old stuff, Dylan yells up at the figure, perhaps the funniest line in the movie), we actually feel like we’re seeing some approximation of two counter-culture icons having fun together. And, since this performance involves not only a diminishment of Blanchett’s beauty but also the change of her gender, it’s got Oscar gold written all over it.

I’m Not There is not a perfect movie. Too many of the Dylans (Whishaw, Bale, Ledger) go bigger than they need to be. Gainsbourg gives a solid performance as an appealing character but it doesn’t always feel like it fit with the rest of the movie. Gere’s chunk of the story fits with Dylan’s career but it wanders and could have been tightened up.

The movie is like an amusement park ride of two decades of pop culture with some “hey, remember that”s, a few big laughs, a few tense moments and several spans where the amusement is on hold while the little cart takes you to another level. And then you get a classic or forgotten or surprisingly fresh-sounding Dylan song. It’s a long and sometimes confusing ride but definitely one worth taking. B+

Rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity. Directed by Todd Haynes and written by Haynes and Oren Moverman, I’m Not There is two hours and 15 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by The Weinstein Company.