If you’re loose on definition and high on tolerance, I suppose you could call “I’m Not There” a fictionalized biopic. But that canon, which has been exploited since the critical success of Ray, is becoming a genre with loosened definitions by the day. I’ll say this — in this “biopic genre”, “I’m Not There” feels like a love letter from fanboy to idol like “Walk the Line” felt like a son’s tribute to his parent’s undying love. One of those two is something we can appreciate, the other feels like an inside joke that fails to connect emotionally.
For me, that’s the problem with “I’m Not There”, Todd Haynes first work as a writer/director since “Far From Heaven”. While that picture was a brilliant take on the hush-hush 1950s, “I’m Not There” does not leave a clear message about the 1960s, or even about Bob Dylan. I’ll be the first to admit the brilliance in Haynes idea — it’s certainly a grand attempt to humanize Dylan to show that his nature can cross generations, ethnicities and even gender.
It would be hypocritical to praise the idea and then demand a linear movie, and say what you will, but the nonlinearity of this movie is its demise. Only the truest Dylan fans could be in on half the plot lines, and even then, the abstract nature to Haynes concoction threatens to put off even some of that demographic. The movie makes a bold attempt to build character arcs with each character, but it forgets to attempt to piece together how they all form into one narrative arc.
What Haynes script does call for, almost by definition, is great acting. Everything you have heard about Cate Blanchett is true, and probably more. The actress, in the top ten in her field at this moment, is perfect as a Dylan that’s, I think, a bit unsure of his purpose and his place in society. Blanchett is the most affecting character in the script, followed closely by Heath Ledger. The late, great actor puts together a very good supporting performance in this film, and collectively, the foreign pair put Christian Bale and Richard Gere to shame. Bale, in particular, failed miserably with a character that really does go through a substantial arc. Gere’s character, unfortunately for him and us, is completely unrecognizable.
But you can’t blame Bale and you can’t blame Gere for this movie’s shortcomings, because in the end, it’s Todd Haynes execution of his vision that comes up short. “I’m Not There” is lacking in accessibility, lacking as an emotive generator, and most simply, lacking as a story with a beginning, middle and end. It tries, and while I suppose you could give it credit for that, I think too many have, the movie feels like a first draft that Haynes never allowed anyone to touch, even despite Oren Moverman’s co-writing credit. For Haynes sake, I’ll try and refrain from blaming his writing skills for such a heinous mistake, and instead question his directing motives.
When we look back at this movie in decades, given its status as Blanchett’s peak, Bale’s misstep and one of Ledger’s final films, I can’t help but think we’ll shake our head and wonder what could have been.