An intellectual whirligig lacking depth or soul, I’m Not There is designed for Bob Dylan fans turned on by spotting allusions to the iconic musician’s immense, revered body of work. For the rest of us, though, Todd Haynes’s expertly executed but hollow exercise in imaginative biography reveals next to nothing about Dylan, the essence of whom the director seeks to capture through an ersatz-kaleidoscopic narrative focused on six fictional variations of Dylan’s personas. To borrow terms coined by Werner Herzog, Haynes is after an “essential truth” as opposed to the point-by-point “accountant’s truth” for which biopics typically strive, one in which the singer-songwriter’s incarnations are cast as simultaneously made-up and authentic. Profound or poignant insights, however, are seldom conveyed by the film’s carousel of sketchy Dylan stand-ins, be it Christian Bale’s earnest Greenwich Village folk troubadour, Heath Ledger’s self-involved counterculture actor, Ben Whishaw’s insufferable poet, Richard Gere’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid retired outlaw, or Cate Blanchett’s plugged-in late’-60s rock n’ roll rebel (in a mimicry-heavy performance where the heavy lifting is done by her cigarettes and dark shades).
All of them strikingly similar mechanisms aimed at touching upon different periods in Dylan’s life (each shot by Haynes in era-faithful cinematic styles), these avatars cannily spout statements about integrity, image, and the individual’s ability to affect socio-political change, while at the same time not-so-subtly dropping lyrics into casual conversation. I’m Not There’s guises-masquerading-as-protagonists—and, consequently, their exhibitions of emotion—are academic conceptual devices to be dispassionately analyzed rather than deeply empathized with, so that when Ledger’s girlfriend, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, stares off into nothing upon hearing Nixon proclaim an end to the Vietnam war, or breaks down upon her beau’s departure, her shock and tears (respectively) are mere simulacrums of grief. This preference for abstract as opposed to humanized drama lends the entire affair a cool remoteness. And this atmosphere is further compounded by Haynes’s hazy conception of said personas, with each figure—far removed from the flesh-and-blood glam-rockers of his Velvet Goldmine—amounting to little more than footnote collections of ticks, phrases, and in-jokes borrowed from their real-life source material.
In fairness, the structural brio of Haynes and co-screenwriter Oren Moverman’s script can be intermittently impressive. Yet more enlivening are the brief flashes of wit, from Julianne Moore’s Joan Baez-ish performer shooing a cat off her chair, to Blanchett’s Don’t Look Back-esque Jude, accompanied by Alan Ginsberg (David Cross), asking a statue of crucified Jesus, “Why don’t you do your early stuff?” For all its narrative doubling and loop-de-loops, however, the film is ultimately a rather mundane, literal piece of inventive hodgepodgery. Nods to Federico Fellini and Richard Lester—the former in a tedious 8 ½-inspired sequence, the latter in an amusing riff on A Hard Day’s Night—are executed in stark boldface, Dylan’s early appropriation of Southern blues is too cutely depicted via a vagabond African-American kid persona (Marcus Carl Franklin), and copious symbolic images of cages tactlessly accompany Jude’s break-from-folk-tradition segment.
I’m Not There’s intricate form is at once too clever for its own good and yet not clever enough, a pretentious swirl of citations and homages that nonetheless habitually falls back on simplistic sonic and visual associations (for example, an unnecessary match cut that links Bruce Greenwood’s old-guard BBC journalist with Greenwood’s villainous Pat Garrett) in an attempt to locate the metamorphic spirit of its legendary subject. Bullet points are rampant (Ledger’s thespian displays a flash of misogyny, Gere’s tramp depicts a hint of romantic rebellion and wanderlust) but no cohesive vision of Dylan the man ever emerges, the director’s collage a self-satisfied dissertation in which organizational tomfoolery, tossed-off impersonations, and metaphoric winks to Dylan aficionados prove meager vehicles for piercing inquiry. All the while, Haynes fails to realize that there’s no need to have his film scream blunt, repetitive, and—even to these largely Dylan-ignorant eyes and ears—obvious references and allegorical gestures at the audience. Unlike the unknowable phantom Bob Dylan at proceedings’ center, we’re right here.