Movie Review: Dogma
One mark of a good writer is his willingness to tackle topics with which he's still struggling. "Chasing Amy" (1997) is Kevin Smith's best film because he's using his sharp sense of humor and canny ear for dialogue successfully to explore thorny issues such as sex and sexuality, companionship and commitment.
In "Dogma," the 29-year-old filmmaker takes on a subject that, if anything, is even more personal and touchy: his relationship with the Catholic Church. Not many films address religion and faith, and given the uproar that greeted "Dogma" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), you can understand why. (Miramax sold "Dogma" to Lions Gate after the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights threatened Miramax's parent company, Disney.)
Yet few topics are as universal as the struggle to maintain faith amid the world's horrors and mysteries. And as Monty Python showed with "Life of Brian," religion and its surrounding, not always logically consistent, lore can be a comic treasure trove when treated with thoughtful irreverence.
Smith, who still considers himself a practicing Catholic, has chosen to work out his conflicts with the Church in lampoon mode, by literally applying Church teachings to what he sees in the modern world. "Dogma" is part Mad Magazine, part Sunday school as it interweaves various celestial and earthbound characters on the brink of the apocalypse.
From the introductory on-screen notes -- perhaps the funniest since "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" -- you're reminded that despite all of the heady debate, "Dogma" is a comedy. It begins with George Carlin as a cardinal launching a campaign to lure people back to the Church by replacing the crucifix with a more user-friendly icon, the thumbs-up-gesturing "Buddy Christ," because "Christ didn't come to Earth to give us the willies."
Meanwhile, Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) are fallen angels eternally banished to Wisconsin after rebelling against God. They're a wisecracking, bickering pair who hang out amid cheesehead displays in Milwaukee Airport as Loki perversely tries to convert nuns to atheism.
These two have discovered a loophole to get them back to heaven, which involves passing through a New Jersey cathedral arch. But if they succeed, it will prove that God is fallible, and thus mortal existence will cease to exist. So an angel, Metatron (Alan Rickman), is sent to Earth to find someone to thwart them. His choice: a lapsed Catholic named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), who works in an abortion clinic.
Smith also throws in an apostle named Rufus (Chris Rock), who complains he was slighted because he's black; a demon (Jason Lee); a strip-club muse (Salma Hayek); and the misfit duo of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (the writer-director himself), now prophets in their fourth appearance in as many Smith movies.
As he demonstrated in "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy," Smith's strongest suit is writing dialogue that slips smart insights in between pop-culture references and raunchy language. As he showed in "Mallrats," he's far less comfortable staging broad farce.
With "Dogma" you get the full Kevin: lots of laughs, as many dumb jokes, a few big ideas that stick to the wall ("You people don't celebrate your faith. You mourn it."), others that fall to the ground, and too many instances where his ambition overwhelms his ability to maintain coherence. Smith would have had an easier job if he just aimed to amuse, though too much scatological humor, such as a giant poop monster, just leaves a stink on the screen.
But he tries to work meaningful theological debate, jarring moments of violence, numerous scriptural references and a heartfelt spiritual journey into his madcap structure. The result is a mish-mash of tones in which such absurdities as singer Alanis Morissette's appearance as God undercut any emotional responses you might have to the climaxes involving Bartleby and Bethany, despite credible work from Affleck and Fiorentino.
Even at a basic level, Smith the still-learning director undercuts Smith the overreaching writer. The intercutting between a dining Rickman and Fiorentino is particularly clumsy (the shots don't match up). And the Jay-and-Silent-Bob card is overplayed, with the director too often cutting to his own eyebrow-raising reactions.
The movie's saving graces are its pointed humor -- equally critical of the Church and people who know their Bible stories mostly from Charlton Heston movies -- and Smith's dogged quest to make sense and nonsense out of his notions of religion and faith.
"Dogma" is not for viewers who object to excessive profanity or to Catholic dogma being questioned and spoofed. Also, the movie is a mess. Yet its subject isn't likely to be contained in a neatly wrapped package, so Smith deserves credit for a good-faith effort. "Dogma," after all, remains more entertaining and probing than your average Charlton Heston movie.
Written and directed by Kevin Smith; photographed by Robert Yeoman; edited by Smith and Scott Mosier; production designed by Robert "Ratface" Holtzman; music by Howard Shore; produced by Mosier. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:05. MPAA rating: R (strong language including sex-related dialogue, violence, crude humor and some drug content).
Bartleby ... Ben Affleck
Loki ... Matt Damon
Bethany ... Linda Fiorentino
Serendipity ... Salma Hayek
Metatron ... Alan Rickman
Rufus ... Chris Rock