Kevin Smith Chases Jehovah
Whether by design, or simply because its maker has rented too many movie videos writer/director Kevin Smith's Dogma ruthlessly loots elements from a host of God-obsessed oddities. Bits and pieces of The Prophecy; Oh, God!, and even psychotronic director Larry Cohen's hermaphrodite-deity feature God Told Me To course through Smith's movie. The result of this cockeyed juxtaposition of the sacred, profane, and ridiculouspackaged in a plot infused with arcane references to innumerable religionsis both the ultimate God film (just in time for the millennium) and one of the decade's most hyperactively inventive comedies.
As befits any biblical saga worthy of the name, Dogma's story is all over the place. Two angels, Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon), have found a weird loophole in the Holy Father's plan. They can return to Earth as bona fide humans and enjoy all the pleasures of the flesh if, at the appointed hour, they can enter, sight unseen, a new church run by Cardinal Glick (George Carlin, doing a great George Carlin). The downside is that if they succeed, they might massively screw up the holy order of things and obliterate the entire cosmos. Being plucky angels, they're still game.
At an abortion clinic ("A good place to meet loose women," one character opines), we meet clinic worker/lapsed Catholic Bethany (Linda Fiorentino, delightfully playing with and against her femme-fatale image), who learns from a world-weary, sexually frustrated assistant of God named Metatron (a deliciously droll Alan Rickman) that she is the lone soul who can save Earth from Bartleby and Loki's plans.
Once all that's established, Dogma turns into an anything-goes, race-against-the-clock road movie. Bethany receives unexpected help from the 13th apostle, Rufus (Chris Rock); slacker duo Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith, reprising their roles from Smith's previous three features, their characters now endowed with supernatural powers); and Muse/part-time stripper Serendipity (Salma Hayek). Meanwhile, yet another grudge-carrying angel, Azrael (Jason Lee), complicates the plot for his own twisted reasons.
Adding flavor to Smith's singular take on Scripture are memorable bits of outlandish shtick, such as a fevered battle between our heroes and a Shit Demon, or angels ripping out each other's wings with enough bloodshed to impress '60s gore-flick pioneer Hershel Gordon Lewis, or a scene in which Metatron strips to reveal a dick-free, Ken-doll-like body.
One can see why the Church might challenge Smith's unorthodox take on Catholic dogma. (Even less amused was the film's original distributor, Miramax, whose parent company, Disney, is still being boycotted by Southern Baptists for its allegedly wicked ways. The indie imprint Lions Gate eventually picked up Dogma after Miramax backed away.) Smith's movie skewers all theological dogmanot only Christianity'sin favor of a sort of K-Tel collection of Religion's Greatest Hits. The specifics of the filmmaker's cosmologybasically, a sort of liberal humanism couched in Christian termsare maddeningly vague or even contradictory, not to mention occasionally schmaltzy. But a profusion of knockabout scatological humor renders Smith's sincerity not only palatable, but goofily seductive.
What ultimately saves Dogma, though, is a newfound refinement in the filmmaking abilities of its director, a guy not previously renowned for technique. Smith is still very much an advocate of the no-frills, point 'n' click school of filmmaking that has characterized his work since his 1994 debut, Clerks, but the self-taught auteur now employs an expanded cinematic vocabulary, including some sophisticated crane and dolly shots. He never gets fancy with is new tricks, though, using them instead as a means of satirizing traditional Hollywood stylistic overkill, and in the service of enriching his slacker aesthetic. Although there are plenty of special optical and make-up effects in Dogma, Smith's matter-of-fact approach renders the assorted supernatural elements believably prosaic.
His cast also shines; there isn't a bad or ill-considered performance here (although at times Chris Rock gets a bit too Chris Rock). The real revelation, however, is Damon's turn as Loki. For the first time, Damon seems to get the joke of being Matt Damon, using his pinup-boy cuteness to disarm the audience and draw them into a complex character. A sure to-be classic scene has a really stressed-out Damon/Loki argue with Affleck/Bartleby that he needs to whack a few deserving human scumbags to work off some steam. As if dealing with a petulant child, Bartleby lets Loki have his way, and the two materialize in a corporate boardroom. Damon does a virtual ballet of loathing, his face and body language smoothly segueing from detached bemusement to righteous rage, as he reads each of the assembled CEOs their assorted sins. Finallywith one amusing exceptionhe blows them all away.
Smith chooses not to show us this mass slaughter. Instead, he focuses on Loki's grinning face as he fires. It's just one of an endless series of subtly canny directorial decisions. Smith distinguishes between violence we need to see in order to know what the hell's going onangels getting their wings ripped apart, for exampleand merely gratuitous bloodshed (people getting shot, which we've seen a million times). And so the movie never teeters into gore-for-gore's sake territory, and never loses our fundamental sympathy.
Just as smart is the refreshing way Dogma runs counter to the predictable ways in which spirituality is presented in American movies. Filmmakers offer either glibly atheist dismissiveness or cough up a conglomeration of pastel New Age pleasantries, such as those trotted out by the likes of What Dreams May Come. Making cheap Jesus jokes or waxing nihilistic about the Meaninglessness of It All is no longer "edgy," shocking, ormore importantlyeven funny. Smith, who lists multiple "spiritual advisers" in the film's credits, embraces the irony of a heartfelt presentation of personal spirituality as a last vestige of transgression, and milks it for all its worth. That he's managed to make a film this abrasive to traditional forms of belief while celebrating their essence, and in the process entertaining the hell out of us, is no small miracle.