Irreverently ReligiousBy Fred Choi
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR
Written and directed by Kevin Smith
With: Ben Affleck, George Carlin, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Salma
Hayek, Jason Lee, Jason Mewes, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, and Kevin
At first glance, the new Kevin Smith movie Dogma looks like nothing but trouble. After all, in an average minute of Kevin Smith dialogue, three out of four words are bound to be four-lettered ones, and although guns, humor, and foul language may mix, adding religion and stirring well is bound to produce more than a little agitation. Nevertheless, while Dogma will make some people uncomfortable with its irreverent view of religion, those who see it will be forced to re-examine their religious beliefs, and that, along with a fantastic cast, makes the movie worth seeing.
At its simplest, the movie’s plot concerns the efforts of two fallen angels, Bartleby and Loki (played by dynamic duo Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), to gain admittance into heaven. The two have been forced into exile for challenging God’s decree and trying to help mankind, but they receive an anonymous tip informing them of a loophole in Catholic dogma that will enable them to return to heaven. However, what the two don’t realize is that by getting in through the loophole they will prove God fallible, and since the one principle upon which the entire world rests is that God is infallible, if they succeed the world will be unable to exist. The stage is set, then, for a classic battle between Good and Evil as the archangel Metatron (Alan Rickman) enlists the aid of Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) to stop the two and save the world.
All this may sound overly complex, but leave it to Kevin Smith to keep the two hour-film engaging. Unlike Smith’s previous three films, the classic and clever Clerks (1994), the disappointingly inane Mallrats (1995), and the earnest but heavy-handed Chasing Amy (1997), Dogma relies less on snappy dialogue and silly diversions and more on action and characteristically colorful characters. Though long-time fans of Kevin Smith will miss his earlier films’ idiosyncrasies, the changes are appropriate for this film. Smith hangs onto previous characteristics of his films, such as conversations about movies (although in this film the discussion concerns not Star Wars, surprisingly, but The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink), and while this worked extremely well in his previous films, it feels out of place here. For the most part, though, Smith has a good grip on how to present his story and does so with great creativity.
Although Dogma is engaging on its surface, it soon becomes clear that the main objective of the film is not merely to spin a good yarn, but to explore serious religious issues within the context of an MTV world. This task is certainly ambitious, and thus it is unsurprising that, entertaining as the film is, it ultimately disappoints because of its limited scope. That is, although it brings up many interesting issues, it never fully explores any of them. On the one hand some views, such as “Jesus was really dark-skinned,” “The Virgin Mary had other children after Jesus,” and “God is a woman,” are hardly novel and are not likely to spark much discussion.
On the other hand, some issues, such as the role of religion in one’s personal life and how to reconcile theology with modern times provide food for thought, although the solutions presented in the film oftentimes lack relevance. Of these the most glaring omission is how to accept religion without physical proof. But despite being unable to effectively present arguments for questions that have plagued mankind for centuries, kudos go to Kevin Smith for bringing them up in the first place and slyly forcing moviegoers to use their heads for once.
Outside of its content, the movie’s greatest asset is its amazingly idiosyncratic characters. The movie requires a strong ensemble to pull off the wide range of personalities that Smith’s characters require, and the actors fill the roles perfectly while adding wonderful subtext. The supporting cast includes Chris Rock as Rufus, Jesus’s 13th and only black Apostle, Jason Lee as the demon Azrael, and the gorgeous Salma Hayek as a divine muse-turned-stripper. In addition, Alanis Morissette turns in a surprisingly convincing performance as the peaceful, fun-loving God. Although Smith’s theology here and throughout the movie may seem to be bordering on the blasphemous, in a recent interview for Time he claimed, “I’m hoping that when people see the film, they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s not the movie that flips the bird at the church. It’s actually kind of devout.’”
Dogma illustrates the ever-evolving style of Smith and serves to demonstrate his talent as screenwriter, director, and actor. Although he still hasn’t hit his stride yet, Dogma reflects his growing maturity as a screenwriter in his willingness to tackle difficult subject matter and his ability to grasp the essence of his characters. Fans that find themselves missing the lighthearted humor and snappy dialogue of his earlier works shouldn’t despair just yet -- among Smith’s next projects is Clerks 2: Hardly Clerkin’.
Catherine Foo contributed to the writing of this review.