MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Ben Affleck (Bartleby), Matt Damon (Loki), Linda Fiorentino (Bethany), Chris Rock (Rufus), Jason Mewes (Jay), Kevin Smith (Silent Bob), Salma Hayek (Serendipity), Jason Lee (Azrael), Alan Rickman (Metatron ), George Carlin (Cardinal Glick), Alanis Morissette (God)
If only there were more movies like "Dogma." Writer/director Kevin Smith's controversial and (lest it be forgotten in the ensuing uproar) hilarious new comedy is a smart, bold, wildly imaginative and thought-provoking work that is, if anything, completely sure of itself. Smith's goal was to make a spiritually reaffirming comedy about the rigors of Catholicism --no small feat, indeed. And, the fact that Smith pulls it off so well, with only the slightest missteps (like Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," Smith sometimes overindulges his worst instincts), is testament to his talent and dedication. That the movie is both funny and devout is something of a miracle.
In fact, "Dogma" is further proof that Smith continues to get better and better with each film he makes (that is, if you ignore 1995's "Mallrats," which, although not as bad as it was first made out to be, still left something to be desired). In "Clerks" (1994), he proved he could be rude and funny. In "Chasing Amy" (1997), he proved he could be rude, funny, and sensitive. And now, in "Dogma"--by far the most ambitious project ever undertaken by a director most commonly referred to as a "slacker"--Smith (still a practicing Catholic who attends Mass every week) has proven that he also has spiritual depth
Before the film begins, Smith opens with a disclaimer that audiences should not be offended by "Dogma" because, after all, it is just a movie. While reading Smith's hilariously honest defense of himself and his film, I was aware of two things. First, it was the hardest I had laughed while reading words on a movie screen since the credits sequence in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1974). Second, I felt Smith was selling himself short. "Dogma" is about more than he wants to let on.
The movie is wholly unconventional, yes (any movie that casts comedian George Carlin as a Cardinal is asking for it). But, unlike so many other films that purport to be about religion (the contrived "Stigmata," released earlier this year, unfortunately jumps to mind), "Dogma" actually is about religion. Smith takes God seriously, even if he has to mock human attempts to understand and deal with Him in the process.
The story's main character is Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), an abortion clinic worker whose faith in God is waning. One night, she is visited by Metatron (Alan Rickan), an angel who informs her that she must complete a mission from God: stop Bartelby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon), two renegade angels who have been banished from Heaven to Wisconsin, from getting back into heaven by exploiting a loophole in Catholic dogma. If they are successful in getting back into heaven, they will prove God wrong and thus end all of existence.
The doubting Bethany is aiding in her quest by an odd assortment of characters, including Rufus (Chris Rock), Christ's 13th apostle who was left out of the Gospels because he was black; Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a muse who tried to make it on her own but found she could only inspire others; and, of course, making their fourth appearance in a Kevin Smith film, foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed Jay (Jason Mewes) and his partner, Silent Bob (Smith), who in this film play the part of unwitting prophets.
"Dogma" is an outrageous comedy in the vein of Smith's previous work. Just because questions of religion constitute the film's core does not mean that it isn't raunchy and at times downright gross. The sequence showing a demon comprised of excrement rising from a backed-up toilet and attacking the movie's heroes is a truly disgusting (and arguably unnecessary) sight. The final sequence, which depicts Bartelby and Loki going on a mad killing spree outside a Catholic Church is gory and somewhat unsettling, but in a comic-book kind of way. The blood is just a little too red, and we know that Smith isn't asking us to take this too seriously. This also goes for Smith's stab at corporate satire, when Bartelby and Loki execute the entire executive board of a Disney-like conglomerate because they are such bad people.
Smith also maintains his own clever style of ultra-vulgar dialogue (his first film, "Clerks," was almost rated NC-17 for dialogue alone). Like Quentin Tarantino, Smith is a street poet of four-letter words, and especially in the mouth of an in-your-face presence like Jason Mewes' Jay, the dialogue rolls out effortlessly and hilariously. Smith's brand of comedy is an assault on the sense, but it works here because his inherent subject matter is so intense to begin with.
But, what is truly amazing is that Smith manages to work in a great deal of theological discussion. "Dogma" contains a range of ideas, everything from questions of Christ's ethnicity (Rufus maintains that he was black), to God's gender (the final resolution is that God is genderless, but He/She is visualized as a joyful sprite embodied by rock star Alanis Morrisette), to questions about the relationship between humans and angels and the role of the church in modern society. Smith doesn't try to answer all these questions, but he poses them as serious food for thought. While watching "Dogma," you spend most of the time laughing; but, when you leave the theater, you leave thinking.
©1998 James Kendrick