A film review by Craig J. Koban


2007, R, 135 mins.


John/Jack: Christian Bale / Jude: Cate Blanchett / Woody: Marcus Carl Franklin / Billy: Richard Gere / Robbie: Heath Ledger / Arthur: Ben Whishaw / Claire: Charlotte Gainsbourg / Alice: Julianne Moore

Directed by Todd Haynes / Written by Haynes and Oren Moverman.

Watching Todd Haynesí IíM NOT THERE is like trying to put together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle for nearly two and a half hours and never once being able to get any of the pieces to fit.  

The film is an exasperating and frustrating 135-minute biopic in the way it attempts to demystify and deconstruct one of the 20th Centuryís most influential recording artists and it never really accomplishes its aims in any real way.  I went into IíM NOT THERE having no real insight into the oftentimes controversial American singer-songwriter, author, musician, and poet and after leaving the theatre Dylan remained an even larger, enigmatic figure. 

I think that biopics Ė at least the best ones Ė are able to provide some sort of tangible commentary about their personas and are able to probe into their psyches.  Thatís not to say that all of their motivations need to be spelled out methodically on paper for the audience, but at the very least these films need to try to dive into the creative mindsets of the artists and attempt to make some amends for what makes these people tick.  Recent musical biopics Ė like RAY and WALK THE LINE Ė did all of this with varying degrees of success; in Todd Haynesí case with IíM NOT THERE, the film is a disappointment and letdown. 

Thatís not to say that this is a biopic void of artistic ambition and ingenuity.  Far from it.  If there is one commendable attribute of Haynesí effort here is that he is at least trying to deconstruct the musical biopic genre itself and attempts to make his film from a fresh prerogative and style.  Instead of getting one actor to play Dylan in a traditional story that chronicles his life story, Haynes instead depicts several different stages of the eclectic musicianís life and public persona and gets an ensemble cast of actors to portray him with different character names.  The stars on board to plays all of the ďDylansĒ range from Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, the late Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, and, yes, Cate Blanchett herself.  In terms of its aesthetic choices, IíM NOT THERE is, at least on paper, an estimable and unique endeavor.  Points should be given to Haynes, at face value, for daring to be different. 

Unfortunately, the source of the filmís inspiration and distinctiveness is also its greatest weakness.  Instead of all of the respective Dylan vignettes working cohesively together to provide a sobering and thought-provoking look at this important figurehead in folk music, they all are cobbled together so incoherently and in such a chaotic and unfocused manner that you never really gain an appreciation for what the film is trying to say about the man.  The film Ė at nearly two and a half hours Ė is a grueling and exhausting endurance test in the way it never makes you emotionally invest in or relate to the underlining material in any meaningful manner.  

Sure, Dylanís music permeates the soundtrack here Ė and it is ubiquitously considered watershed work in the annals of pop culture Ė but IíM NOT THERE does little to embellish, comment on, or understand, his mystique.  Instead, we are giving widely divergent snippets of his life that never coalesce with any symmetry; the fractured nature of the film only leaves people scratching their heads and asking more questions.  Youíll come out admiring Dylan's music, but never appreciating the man behind it.  As result, sitting through the film is like sharing coffee with a monosyllabic, grunting, pretentious, and incoherently pontificating artist for an evening.  Since Dylan in the film is mostly shown as a monosyllabic, grunting, pretentious, and incoherently pontificating artist, you can see how IíM NOT THERE could be a straining and maddening chore to watch. 

As stated, there are several Dylans and Haynes intercuts their stories and films them all with different film stocks and directorial choices.  We first are shown Marcus Carl Franklin, a gifted young black child actor, playing the 11-year-old Dylan - who goes by the name of Woody Guthrie - that escapes from a juvenile correction center.  He later hitchhikes onto a train with his guitar labeled ďThis Machine Kills Fascists.Ē  The great Christian Bale plays Dylan #2 and he goes by the name of Jack Rollins, who essentially is a version of Dylan as a young and ambitious folk singer that imbues his work with a political conscience and soul.  Later on, Rollins becomes a born again Christian and a Pastor, mirroring Dylanís own spiritual changes later in life. 

Dylan #3 is played by Ben Whishaw - who calls himself the poet Arthur Rimbaud - and he is presented throughout much of the film breaking the cinematic fourth wall as he talks to the audience as he is being interviewed.  Dylan #4 is played by the late Heath Ledger as a Hollywood actor named Robbie Clark, who in turn is making a film about Jack Rollins.  This Dylan shows the artist during his courtship, marriage, and eventual divorce from Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Dylan #5 is the oldest version of the artist as is played by Richard Gere - who is an elder Billy the Kid - that lives in a dreamlike old Wild West town that is at odds with an even older Pat Garrett (played by Bruce Greenwood, whose vocalizations are vaguely like Dylan's, as least as much to label Garrett as a possible Dylan #6).  Finally, we have Dylan #7, played most famously by Cate Blanchett - named Jude Quinn - whom is essentially Dylan at his most famous Ė and personally impenetrable Ė version of himself in the 1960ís.  This also marks the highly dubious period during Dylanís life when he decided to go ďelectricĒ with his sound, which led to his legion of fans lambasting him as a sell out. 

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing aspect of IíM NOT THERE is how adept Haynes is at making each Dylan vignette look and feel different.  The scenes with Guthrie, Clark, and Billy the Kid are all in color; the scenes with Rollins are shot on grainy 16mm stock are framed with mock-documentary footage with people who knew him (Julianne Moore makes a cameo here); the Jude Quinn section is also filmed in black and white with hints of the surreal palette that Fellini used in 8 Ĺ.  On a artistic level, Haynes is a practiced film student in the way he channels each vignette into being like several little accomplished looking films in their own respective rights. 

Yet, however polished Haynes is with crafting these sections, there is no real connective thread that ties everything together to form an interconnected whole, which ultimately is the filmís tragic undoing.  All of the subplots and stories within the larger story seem so incongruent with each other and the editing of the film lacks focused transitions.  IíM NOT THERE has a careless, free wheeling spirit about it that only serves to confuse and confound viewers.  The aimlessness and sense of utter meaninglessness to the filmís structure makes in impossible to become involved in any of the respective stories, not to mention that it all but eradicates any character development in the film.  IíM NOT THERE utilizes a very avant garde approach to the material, but, in the end, you are left feeling that a more traditional biopic structure still would have been the most satisfying choice.  IíM NOT THERE is a film that is brilliant in inception, but wholeheartedly lousy in implementation. 

The film is all the more sad to sit through when one considers the great talent involved, some of whom are great in it, some decent, while some being distractions.  I found myself responding strongest to Baleís interpretation (heís so spot on here that I kind of wished for a whole movie about his version) as I did Ledgerís interpretation, which is rock solid.  The sections with Whishaw's poet Rimbaud have a tacked-on and rambling incoherence about them, as does the inexplicably miscast Gere as the Dylan-esque Billy the Kid (this section feels like it could have been easily excised from the film altogether).  

Then, of course, there is Blanchett, who has seen a lot of press Ė and critical accolades - regarding her version of Dylan.  She undoubtedly gets his physical mannerisms down pat and she does a modestly good job of mimicking Dylan, but she emerges as a gimmicky distraction throughout IíM NOT THERE.  Any real palpable drama or intrigue is compounded by the fact that we are essentially seeing a woman in reverse-drag.  As a result, itís hard to fully immerse yourself completely in Blanchettís performance.  Imagine, for example, if Brad Pitt playedÖsayÖJoni Mitchell.  See what I mean?

Todd Haynes is a great filmmaker; films like SAFE, VELVET GOLDMINE, and the Oscar nominated FAR FROM HEAVEN.  The latter mentioned film, like IíM NOT THERE, tried to radically reinterpret a genre.  Yet, while watching his quasi-Dylan biopic itís disheartening to see what a muddled, confusing, and messy film it really is.  As a piece of experimental filmmaking that tries to be everything but mainstream, IíM NOT THERE is a work that has novelty, but itís novelty wears thin extremely fast.  Instead of being taking in by it, we are left perplexed and bewildered.  Consider the cultural significance of Bob Dylan, who systematically rejuvenated the music world with his focus on so many divergent genres (pop, rock, folk, jazz, country and blues, etc.) alongside breathing a political and philosophical heartbeat into his work.  He is clearly deserving of a biopic that does his legacy justice.  

IíM NOT THERE is not that film. 

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