Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels
Viewers walking into Kevin Smiths Dogma wanting to be offended will get their wish. The sex and stoner jokes alone in a movie about religious faith will push their buttons. But anyone walking in with an open mind is likely to be pleasantly surprised. And despite what the Catholic League says, it does not bash God or Catholicism, though the movie is more than a bit absurd at times.
Dogma starts on an oddly violent note that seems unlike writer/director Smiths usual tone, but the story quickly shifts to Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon), two angels exiled to Wisconsin for more than a millennium, who have found a loophole in Catholic Church law that will allow them to go home. The only problem is all of existence will be wiped out if they succeed.
That leads us to Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a woman who wants to recapture her faith and doesnt know how. One night, Metatron (Alan Rickman), the angel designated "the Voice of God," appears to Bethany and tells her she has to stop the two angels from reaching a church in New Jersey, and that shell be aided by two prophets. The prophets turn out to be none other than Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), first appearing in a scene that is an amusing riff on action movie conventions.
Bethany, of course, cant quite believe whats happening, let alone the fact that heaven needs her help. Along the way, shes also assisted by Rufus (Chris Rock), the thirteenth Apostle who was left out of the Bible, and later by Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a muse. George Carlin also appears as a well-intentioned cardinal who is more than a bit of a salesman, pushing a kinder, gentler Church via his "Catholicism, WOW!" campaign. It's a bit silly but a good-intentioned effort by the Cardinal to attract young people to the faith. Smith film regular Jason Lee also returns as the scheming demon Azrael.
Like previous Smith films, the dialogue is razor sharp and filled with pop culture references, and Jay is as tacky and crass as ever. But the film also tries to seriously deal with questions of faith, religion and idolatry. Its rare nowadays for a film to balance entertainment with philosophy. Personally, I think Smith should be commended for trying as well as succeeding, not chastised for having a shit demon in a comic religious fantasy film (the key word being "comic").
With each film, Smith becomes a more polished director and writer (though he was always a stronger writer than director). Dogma is better visually than Chasing Amy despite making some of the special effects obvious. Still, its a creative choice that emphasizes the fact that this is a fantasy and counterbalances the otherwise gritty realism of some scenes.
The cast is wonderful. Alanis Morissette is an extremely pleasant surprise as God. She manages to combine boundless parental love, ageless wisdom, disappointment and a whimsical love of life in her brief performance. People sometimes forget that Rock can act and not just do comic riffs. Rufus is delightfully down to earth despite being a close personal friend of JC. Fiorentino has always been a good actress, but she was typecast as a femme fatale after The Last Seduction. Its wonderful to see her sink her teeth into a totally different and complex role. Hayek is much more than the pretty face shes sometimes assumed to be.
Rickmans Metatron is a bit prissy and pretentious, but his second appearance to Bethany is nearly heartbreaking when he talks about how difficult it was to convey heavenly orders once before. Mewes was never a professional actor, but he manages to hold his own with Dogmas heavyweights. I always thought Smith was as good an actor as he is a writer, and Dogma reinforces that belief. This seemingly cartoon character is always a delightfully deep surprise, and while his performance isnt as soulfully and silently comedic as Charlie Chaplin, its still damn good.
Smith fans will adore Dogma, of course. For those who have never seen a Smith film, Dogma isnt totally typical, but anyone with an open mind should find it to be a thoroughly entertaining absurdist religious comedy.
A Lions Gate Entertainment release. Written and Directed by Kevin Smith.
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Review © 1999 Beth Hannan Rimmels. Stills © 1999 Lions Gate Entertainment.