Writer/director Todd Haynes's abstract portrait of Bob Dylan in the '60s and '70s has garnered a little attention for its gimmicky casting of six different actors - Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, and relative unknowns Marcus Carl Franklin and Ben Whishaw - as six different incarnations of the legendary singer/songwriter. But the casting simply reflects the fragmentation of Haynes's film itself: each actor portrays a character who is not Bob Dylan, but rather a distinct aspect of Bob Dylan's life.
Haynes has defended his decision by saying that Dylan is such an iconic figure that no one performer could successfully embody everything the man was about. Fair enough. But now that I've seen the film, I think that Haynes could have done just fine - and maybe even created a masterpiece - if he pared down the entire movie to the "Electric" Dylan of the mid-'60s and cast only the gender-bending Blanchett. She is nothing less than phenomenal, and her segments' whimsy, note-perfect black and white cinematography, and energy stand head and shoulders above the rest of the film. (Christian Bale, as the early folky Dylan and later as the born-again Christian Dylan, is also quite good - a pity we don't see more of him.) She is Dylan - at least the Dylan who makes for truly interesting cinema.
On the flipside, all the scenes with Ledger as the private, bad-husband Dylan are terribly dull and drag down the movie repeatedly. It's not any fault of Ledger's, or of Charlotte Gainsbourg as his put-upon painter wife. But it's boring. Haynes clearly felt that it was important to include this facet of Dylan, as his failed marriage surely informed his later songs, but I'm Not There could have survived just fine without it, in my opinion. As for the alternate universe Dylans portrayed by the young African American performer Franklin - his early Dylan is named Woody Guthrie - and by a shaggy, smirking Richard Gere - his Dylan-in-seclusion is named Billy the Kid and lives in the Old West - they are evocative, but so oblique that we don't really see the point. (Whishaw's Dylan, named Arthur Rimbaud, only provides a few funny non sequitur soundbites.)
This is typical of Haynes, a former art and semiotics major and a classic postmodernist: this film, like many of his others, is filled with obscure cultural allusions, and it would take a dedicated Dylan (or film) scholar to catch them all. (For example, the Billy the Kid segments refer to Dylan's soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah's forgotten 1973 anti-Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.)
This brings up the larger question, which Haynes, in his narrow focus, never acknowledges: Who really cares about Bob Dylan anymore? Undoubtedly, he changed the pop music scene in the 1960s. But has he really influenced any of the music that we've been listening to over the past three decades? Even an old-timer like me doesn't fully understand Bob Dylan's relevance. So it's hard for me to imagine anybody born after 1960 really needing this film (which is already, with its $17 million budget, a box office flop). It doesn't tell you enough about Dylan to explain who he is/was or why he matters/mattered, presuming instead that everybody knows what Haynes knows.
If you saw Haynes's 1998 Velvet Goldmine, his gay fantasia about glam rock-era David Bowie, you will likely find yourself having the same reaction to this thematic follow-up. I'm Not There is a similar experience in its loose narrative structure, its gorgeous obsession with period detail, and mostly its fatal overlength. Clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes, it's too long by at least half an hour. (Cut out all those Heath Ledger segments and it would be fine.)
That said, I fully support the career of Todd Haynes and all his eccentric pursuits. I'm glad he's around and I'm glad some people are crazy enough to give him millions of dollars to make these insular, noncommercial motion pictures (the accessible '50s weepie Far from Heaven notwithstanding). And again, Cate Blanchett is shockingly, amazingly fantastic in this movie. I mean it when I say this: she was born to play Bob Dylan.