Movie Review By Casey McCabe
Kevin Smith, the generation X wiseacre who brought us "Clerks," "Mallrats" and "Chasing Amy," now shows us what he can do with a bigger budget, a dream cast and a high concept. The film is "Dogma" and it arrives already under protest from the Catholic church, which for some reason resents the depiction of murderous angels, foul-mouthed prophets, naked apostles and a bankrupt belief system. Turns out the movie anticipated this, opening with a coy disclaimer asking viewers not to take this trifle of a film seriously. But even after bringing my own profound secular humanist love of irreverence, I found that I too, was offended by "Dogma."
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck play fallen angels who still, inexplicably have supernatural powers and answer to no one. They have discovered a loophole in God's law that will allow them back into heaven. The only problem is, exercising the loophole will result in the termination of all human existence. The most damning thing about this movie is that two hours later, it's still not clear whether or not we want them to succeed.
Smith has basically thrown everything at the screen to see what might stick, and that includes himself in the major role of Silent Bob, a character that conveniently doesn't require him to act. The film is in turns both irreverent and preachy. Actors get both long slabs of introspective dialogue AND the chance to spray bullets from cool looking guns. The rules of this game, though informed by Judeo-Christian theology, are basically made-up as the film goes along. And virtually everyone in "Dogma" is given Smith's screenwriter voice: adolescent, self-centered, sexually obsessed, and virtually unable to complete a sentence without one or more variations of the f-word. But then Dogma basically IS boy-with-a-toy filmmaking. In one of many examples there's the character of Serendipity, a heavenly muse played by Salma Hayek who we meet in strip bar. I seem to remember a feeble attempt to explain why this creature of immortal light is wagging her butt in front of drunken street gangs, but it's clearly in order to see Salma Hayek half-naked. This is an understandable, but dishonest achievement.
"Dogma" also stars the usually excellent Linda Fiorentino, who is handed revelation after revelation, but never looks more than tired or vaguely bemused. Alan Rickman gives it his usual good go as the Earthly Voice of God. Chris Rock as the forgotten 13th apostle seems visibly burdened by the lesser material. Only Ben Affleck really goes to the well in "Dogma," seemingly the only actor to consider the consequences of his character.
But consequences, of course, are the key to both religious faith and good storytelling. Behind the laughs in "Dogma" — and I'll admit there are a few good ones — is a reckless cruelty that can't be shaken off as a trifle. Don't think for a second think Smith doesn't want this film to be taken seriously. He'd just prefer to avoid the consequences. In "Dogma," he has feigned to aim high, hit carelessly and below the belt, then asked us not to judge him. Sorry, Kevin, absolution never comes that easily. Even for agnostics and filmmakers.
© 1999 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 11/10/99
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