Penelope's Secret; Penelope Cruz Missed Boyfriend Tom Cruise's 40th Birthday Party in Order to Work with Her Hero Bob Dylan, in What Insiders Are Calling the Most Bizarre Film of the Year

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Byline: DAVID BUTCHER

At this year's Sundance Film Festival in Utah - the annual showcase for independent cinema - big stars came and went but none caused a bigger media scrum than Bob Dylan. Looking like a cross between Vincent Price and David Beckham, with a pencil moustache and surprise blond locks straying from under a woollen hat, the musical legend made a rare public appearance to promote his bizarre new film, Masked and Anonymous.

The new film's extraordinary cast includes Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett, with cameos from Val Kilmer, Mickey Rourke, Christian Slater, Giovanni Ribisi, and Ed Harris. Cruz, currently one of the world's most sought-after actresses, even missed boyfriend Tom Cruise's 40th birthday celebrations because she was busy filming Masked and Anonymous, in which she plays the part of a kooky, prayer-obsessed prostitute.

The remarkable thing isn't just that these big names came together for the film, but that they all agreed to be paid Equity scale rates - meaning just a fraction of their usual fees - for the chance to appear alongside their idol.

The film was billed as the centrepiece of the Sundance festival, but the screening made waves for all the wrong reasons. At a question-and-answer session afterwards, it emerged that the two screenwriters credited with the film's script - 'Rene Fontaine and Sergy Petrov' - were not who they seemed.

'We don't talk about who wrote the film,' joked director Larry Charles to the audience. But when Jessica Lange was asked why she took a role in the production, the actress let the cat out of the bag: 'It was a chance to speak Bob Dylan's words,' she revealed.

The film, backed by money from the BBC, received a mixed reaction from the Sundance audience, with comments ranging from 'a masterpiece' to 'a shambling mess'. Set in an unnamed police state of the near future riven by a long-running civil war, it features Dylan as the ominously named Jack Fate, a cult singer who has fallen from grace and is bailed out of jail by his former manager (Goodman) to perform one last concert.

As in his previous film roles, in Renaldo and Clara and Hearts of Fire, Dylan plays a thinly disguised version of himself, the hard-bitten, enigmatic troubadour. 'To me, Bob is like a post-apocalyptic Humphrey Bogart in this film,' says director Charles, who made his name writing and producing the sitcom Seinfeld and describes the script as 'Shakespeare done by John Cassavetes'.

But American critic Roger Ebert was unimpressed:? …