Finally! A movie that dares to reveal that church-suppressed truth: God has a sense of humor. Trouble is, some of the devout folks on this mortal coil might not be laughing after they see Kevin Smith’s Dogma.
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My father, a Baptist minister, once felt the same way about Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In 1979, he joined many of his fellow clergy in speaking out against the film from the pulpit, shepherding his flock away from the box office.
I don’t know what he’d think of Dogma; he’ll probably catch it on a cable channel late one night and have a chuckle or two. But a few laughs is not all that Dogma offers. This is, without a doubt, one of the most penetrating examinations of faith since Cecil B. DeMille’s Moses came down off the mountain. Forget Stigmata, forget End of Days (please). This is the real movie for the Church of the Multiplex.
Whereas Life of Brian was a subversive jab in the Christian ribs, Dogma gives a thumbs up to God (like the winking “Buddy Christ” at the start of the movie) but a big thumbs down to organized religion. “You people don't celebrate your faith; you mourn it,” says one heavenly messenger. Not a message that will sit well with the pulpit.
Dogma dogmatically attempts to take an ecumenical approach. Smith, despite the needless profanity barrage and scatological humor, doesn’t want to turn anyone away from the pearly gates. What other movie can you think of that opens with a legal disclaimer written to offend no one except platypuses? And even those duck-billed creatures would probably be forgiving at the end of the two hours.
Unfortunately, I’m probably a little lower in the animal kingdom than platypi because I have to admit I didn’t find Dogma’s humor as funny as I should. Perhaps a second viewing would make me a little more charitable, but I had trouble getting the message because of the medium.
Like DeMille’s epics, Smith’s religious pastiche has a large cast. Some work hard, others are just there to collect a paycheck (or, in this case, counting rosary). The most appealing characters are the bad guys: Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), two renegade angels who find a loophole in church doctrine which would allow them to re-enter heaven through an inner-city church, thus proving God is fallible and thus undoing the fabric of the universe and negating all existence. As they showed in Good Will Hunting, Damon and Affleck have a lot of chemistry together. Here, they break out the banter and boyish grins as they play the bad guys with tattered wings and crooked halos. There’s none of the somber sobriety of Wings of Desire (or its equally doe-eyed remake, City of Angels)—this is strictly Marx Brothers territory.
While Loki and Bartleby make their way from Wisconsin to the church in New Jersey, God sends His “Voice” (Alan Rickman) to an abortion clinic worker, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), who is given the mission to stop the angels and thus prevent life as we know it from negating into the void. “No one’s asking you to build an ark,” the Voice says in the face of her skepticism. “All you have to do is go to New Jersey.”
Bethany is joined on her crusade by two prophets (Smith mainstays Jay [Jason Mewes] and Silent Bob [Smith himself]), a stripper/muse (Salma Hayek) and Rufus the 13th Apostle (Chris Rock) who’s got a beef with the way the New Testament has written him out of history. Throw in Alanis Morissette, George Carlin, Jason Lee and Bud Cort (Harold of Harold and Maude!) and the plot threads get spread pretty thin.
With the exception of Rickman (whose dry wit could liven up even a Cardboard Manufacturers of America convention) and Rock (who puts his edgy, stand-up routine to excellent use here), most of the cast delivers their lines like they were tasting the dialogue for the first time (especially Fiorentino whose monotonous sexy murmur drones and grates after the first twenty minutes). This is a real shame because Smith has written some real zingers in the script. Gems like “An abortion clinic’s a good place to hang out and pick up loose women” and “Christ didn’t come to earth to give us the willies—He was a booster.”
For the first hour or so, the jokes and one-liners fly as fast and furious as thunderbolts, but eventually they taper off and Smith’s approach becomes scattershot. Wit dissolves to silliness. Nowhere is this more apparent than the mercifully brief appearance of a demon formed out of human feces. Sure, it’s funny to call it an “excremental,” but let’s face it, that’s one sight gag that really stinks (much like that pun).
At his best, Smith is as funny as prime-time Woody Allen; but when he descends into the Farrelly Brothers’ scatological territory, he loses faith in his divine material.
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