I'm Not There ***1/2

Directed by Todd Haynes. With Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw. Distributed by the Weinstein Co. 2 hours, 15 mins. R (profanity, drugs, sex, violence, adult themes). Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ

To paraphrase a line from "Idiot Wind," one of a bunch of Bob Dylan songs that show up in I'm Not There, the mind of Todd Haynes is filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.

A loopy, surreal, beguiling collage of a film, the writer-director's meta-biopic embraces its subject - that poet-songwriter dude from Hibbing, Minn., né Robert Zimmerman - and the way in which Dylan has transformed and reinvented himself over five decades at the forefront of American music.

The man who sang "The Times They Are A-Changing" has changed himself more times than a one-man Shakespeare troupe.

And so, Haynes' I'm Not There metamorphoses in much the same way, with six actors portraying respective Dylans, or Dylan alter egos : Marcus Carl Franklin as "Woody," an 11-year-old, guitar-toting - and African American - Dylan, riding the rails, and yelping the blues; Ben Whishaw as "Arthur Rimbaud," who spends most of his time at an interrogation table, answering queries and offering trippy, tricky retorts; Cate Blanchett as "Jude Quinn," the electric Dylan with the wild hair and mod polka-dots who hobnobbed with the Beatles and dazzled and disgusted British fans in 1965; Christian Bale as "Jack Rollins," the folksinger/protest-marcher Dylan who turns into an evangelical preacher; Heath Ledger as Robbie, a movie actor who comes to fame portraying Jack Rollins onscreen, and represents Dylan at the height of his '70s celebrityhood; and Richard Gere as a cowpoke incarnation, an aged Billy the Kid.

Hugely ambitious and deeply personal, I'm Not There is at once experimental and mainstream: Haynes juggles the facts, plays fast and loose, but serves up images, and songs that are as much a part of the collective pop consciousness as anything the 20th century produced.

- Steven Rea