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The Actors They Are A-Changin'

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Before you pay good money to see the new movie about Bob Dylan, "I'm Not There," be warned the title is literal. There is no Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' creative but dull biopic about the singer-songwriter, but there are various characters that are supposed to serve as a composite stand-in. There's not much movie there, either, because most of "I'm Not There" is a slick series of semi-connected episodes meant to show how enigmatic Dylan was despite his reductive labeling at the time as the voice of a generation.

Yes, you've heard this shtick before. Lacking much of what is usually considered a story, the film would better be titled "Re-enacted Highlights From Bob Dylan Documentaries." Some of the material can be found in D.A. Pennebaker's venerable "Don't Look Back," but Haynes mostly seems to be following Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home," released in 2005. Both it and "I'm Not There" were given the nod by the Grand Poo-bah himself, but the latter feels more like a fan's effort. Instead of interesting new insights or perspective, as Haynes offered in the controversial Karen Carpenter biopic that ignited his filmmaking career, we get humdrum and thoroughly familiar infamy colored with admiration, such as the live show at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where Dylan was booed for going electric and the San Francisco press conference of the same year when he had fun with unprepared reporters.

The Bob Dylan figure the movie begins with is wholly different, an optimistic African-American tyke hoboing across the country with his six-string, hoping to make himself famous. This is supposed to represent the spirit of young Dylan, or the spirit of the folk tradition, or some such thing -- a spirit the movie points out is fatally single-minded. Hoboing at that time — and, more importantly, singing about it — would have been an anachronism that any up-and-coming '60s folkie would need to rebel against if he or she really wanted to say something new. The analogy would be fine except the kid plays a group song with a couple of older men that sounds like the kind of "blues" one might hear at present-day Disneyland, not in SoHo or the Delta in 1961.

This tendency to polish and glamorize is a problem in each episode. For the bushy-haired, pencil-thin '60s Dylan, we get a host of different actors playing different Dylanesque people, who portray Dylan in just about every light but a negative one. The worst we get is the suggestion that he could be rude when drinking. His stint as a born-again Christian (played by Christian Bale, of all people), writing and performing often cringe-inducing gospel music, is left hanging without commentary. Haynes wants to rouse a cheer for him when he sticks it to journalists or other media types, but that's asking a lot at face value considering these same people helped add untold piles of money to his collection.

The media-bashing Dylan running from the inconveniences of fame is the most prominent version, played by Cate Blanchett, who wallows in the kind of jaded, cynical self-pity only a fabulously rich and famous star could come up with. According to Haynes, if Dylan wasn't The Voice of a Generation, he was The Voice of the Debunking of The Voice of a Generation. Maybe he was truly the first Anti-American Idol, but the movie beats it to death. Haynes turns obsequious in his determination to give Dylan a major treatment, resulting in a lot of footage better saved for the bonus features of the DVD. Some of these scenes are downright silly, like when Dylan runs into the Beatles and scampers on the lawn with them. Others are simply confusing, such as Richard Gere's turn as an imaginary Billy the Kid and Heath Ledger's Robbie, a selfish actor who could be a stand-in for figures in Dylan's social-political lyrics.

Dylan did star in and write the soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," but making all these connections and drawing meaning out of them is a lot to ask of a bored audience. "I'm Not There" ends with the only universally recognizable tune in the movie, "Like a Rolling Stone," which is an oddly rousing stance to take after so much deliberate pretentiousness. Bob Dylan deserves a compelling, risk-taking account of his life, or at least one that dares to scrutinize his legacy as a supreme being of pop. "I'm Not There" is none of the above. (R) 135 min. S



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