A throwback to the counterculture heyday of renegade filmmaking that rejected the oppressive, bloated, bourgeois drivel produced by Hollywood in favor of ambitious but incoherent efforts like Dennis Hopper's notorious THE LAST MOVIE (1971). Masterminded by Bob Dylan and featuring a parade of famous faces in brief cameos, this ragged political satire takes place in an unnamed country that appears to be somewhere in Latin America but is in fact some awful, worst-possible-case scenario United States. There's fighting in the streets, the president-for-life (Richard Sarafian) is on his deathbed, and his greasy second-in-command (Mickey Rourke) is preparing to assume the tainted mantle of power. Cynical event producer Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange) is putting together a benefit concert ("How else do you get rock stars to do TV?") and enlists drunken huckster Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) to round up top-line talent. But the best he can do is the quasi-legendary Jack Fate (Dylan), who's languishing in jail, and a medley of circus acts, freaks and impersonators of historical figures. Accompanied by his high-strung but compassionate girlfriend (Penelope Cruz), belligerent, self-hating reporter Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges) prowls around looking for a story. Fate's disciple, Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson), hovers over Fate like a guardian angel in a snakeskin jacket, while Fate crosses paths with disillusioned souls whose disgust with the state of things is matched only by their inability to articulate a viable alternative. Written pseudonymously by Dylan and director Larry Charles, who adapt Chekov's admonition about guns to "if you introduce Blind Lemon's guitar in the first act, you must beat someone to death with it in the third," the film sweats an audacious sheen of despair not the cheap cynicism of "edgy" action pictures, but genuine hopelessness. And though Dylan shuffles through the dramatic sequences like a dessicated mummy, the music sequences are strikingly vibrant he's never looked worse or sounded better. Amid the unsubtle symbolism, in-jokey dialogue and portentous monologues (Val Kilmer's rant about nature's purity is especially trying), one breathtaking sequence suggests the road not taken. A little girl (Tinashe Kachingwe) whose mother made her memorize the words to all Fate's songs delivers an a capella version of "The Times They Are a Changin'" that transforms Dylan's anthemic celebration of youthful rebellion into a poignant lament for unfulfilled dreams. It's a brilliant, complex moment that makes you wish there had been more like it.
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