Review: 'Dogma' not the end of the world
November 12, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Clinton
(CNN) -- Writer/director Kevin Smith is one of the shining lights of the American independent film movement, with successful movies such as "Clerks" (1994) and "Chasing Amy" (1997) on his resumé. With his latest big-screen effort, "Dogma," he's at the center of a controversy over whether the content of his movie is an insult to the Catholic Church. But for our purposes here, the bottom line is whether the film is entertaining.
No matter how you feel about "Dogma," you have to give Smith major points for originality. This outrageous comic fantasy features two fallen angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who have been sent to everlasting, cheese-headed exile in Wisconsin.
It seems that Loki once held the job title "Angel of Death," and was extremely busy during the good ol' days of the Old Testament. Apparently his duties included destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, among other acts of biblical vengeance, and he got really, really tired. So when his buddy, Bartleby, questioned his chosen line of work, Loki suddenly had doubts -- resulting in their downfall.
A couple of thousand of years pass and the two discover there is a way to get back into heaven. Apparently, there's a slight loophole in Catholic Church dogma. If they become human, tear off their wings, give up their powers, and then pass under the blessed arch of a New Jersey cathedral that is to be rededicated, they'll get a second chance.
The catch: By doing so, they would show that God is fallible. Since all faith is based on the premise that God is infallible, all human existence will be obliterated. These guys are major snobs, and look down on mere humans, so they could care less. They just want to go home.
On the road to enlightenment with Silent Bob
Linda Fiorentino plays Bethany. She's a human who has been around the proverbial block a few times and is suffering from a crisis of faith. Unbeknownst to her, she's a distant relation to Jesus Christ, don't ask, and has therefore been chosen by God to stop Loki and Bartleby.
She gets the news from a heaven-sent messenger played with sputtering delight by Alan Rickman. He gives her a few travel tips -- think Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," or Alice upon her arrival in Wonderland -- and she's on her reluctant way, heading towards Jersey and her date with destiny.
Soon she meets a couple of trashy-mouthed, horny prophets named Jay and Silent Bob. (Jay, played by Jason Mewes, and Smith as Silent Bob have appeared in all of Smith's films to date. Of course, these two characters have never been cast as prophets before, but I digress.) They are joined in their quest by Chris Rock's character, the forgotten 13th apostle, Rufus, who is not a happy camper over being left out of the "big book."
The four stop at a strip joint and meet up with a heavenly muse, Serendipity, played with gum-snapping panache by Salma Hayek. As a muse she proudly proclaims she's helped Mozart and Michelangelo, not to mention being responsible for 19 out of the top 20 movies of all time. Our motley group of dubious heroes is now complete.
Standing in their way is a demon named Azrael, played with dogged glee by Jason Lee. Lee, who's appeared in two Smith films -- "Mall Rats" in 1995 and "Chasing Amy" -- was supposed to play Damon's part in this movie, but couldn't because of scheduling problems. Azrael controls a bunch of grungy, rollerblading punks/demons who try to stop Bethany and her heavenly posse from completing their mission.
Throw in the concepts that Christ was a black man, and God is a woman who likes to go around standing on her head, and you have a movie that is sure to make a lot of people sit up and take notice.
Low-budget film, pricey talent
On the surface, this low-budget film with high-budget talent sounds like blasphemy of the most blatant kind. But in reality, it turns out to be a hilarious, if uneven, exploration of individual faith. Yes, it takes religious dogma, particularly Catholic dogma, and turns it on its head, but only with the best intentions.
Smith, who says he's a church-going Catholic and claims that "the absurdity of the characters sticks a pin into any potential didacticism," is amazed the film is causing any stir with the faithful. As he says in the film's production notes, "how seriously can you take a movie that has a rubber poop monster in it?"
In fact, this surreal adult fable with its strange breed of celestial characters, all caught up in their own little dramas and absurdities, is everything you've heard -- and less. At times this spirited adventure works wonders, but occasionally slips into a preachy mode in order to explain a lot of the dogma that it's trying to spoof.
Everyone, across the board, seems to be having a fine time making this goofy film, but unfortunately Rock can't act. He's hilarious, but he can't act. Every word of dialogue feels like he's slinging one-liners from a stage at the Comedy Store.
Ultimately, you may feel lectured to by this dogmatized film written and directed by Smith. However, "Dogma" is far from anti-faith. In fact it's quite the opposite, and may get you thinking about the concept of heaven and earth and religion in a fresh and positive way.
But be warned. In the end, this movie isn't quite as controversial or as outrageous as the hype would have you to believe. By the time the credits roll, its unorthodox viewpoint begins to feel a little bit like a good old-fashioned sermon on the mount.
"Dogma" is rated R (lots of profane language, not to mention its general premise), with a running time of 125 minutes.
Kevin Smith on New Jersey, fatherhood and 'Dogma'
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