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Dogma

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Dogma

Starring: Ben Affleck, Chris Rock
Director: Kevin Smith
Rated: R
RunTime: 125 Minutes
Release Date: November 1999
Genres: Comedy, Religion


*Also starring: George Carlin, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Salma Hayek, Jason Lee, Alan Rickman, Janeane Garofalo, Alanis Morissette, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Though some Catholics groups are tearing into this film, considering it as scandalous as "Priest" and more so than "Stigmata," "Dogma" is firmly pro-belief. There is indeed a God and there are angels and demons, according to writer- director Kevin Smith. Yet you can't discount the apprehension that churchgoing Catholics and the Catholic clergy feel about the ideas embraced by Smith in his fourth film, which encompasses a grandiose theme you'd not expect from a man whose previous works were contained in limited spheres. Those films include a $27,000 wonder about a day in the life of a convenience store clerk and video palace bum ("Clerks"); a flop about a bunch of friends, largely geeks, who hang around a suburban mall ("Mallrats"); and his best feature, "Chasing Amy," about a comic book artist who meets and falls for an attractive, personable female and pursues her even when he discovers that she's gay.

Like Rupert Wainwright, whose recent film "Stigmata" underscores the idea that "the kingdom of God is within you" (thus discounting the need for showy Church rigmarole), Kevin Smith in no way discounts the existence of God. He does, however, take aim against dogma, against absolute convictions, and comically sends up the seriousness with which religious institutions practice their creeds. "God has a sense of humor," he states in a written preamble to the movie, "or how else to explain His creation of the platypus?" As one character in the story essentially holds, we should be celebrating our religions, not treating them as a somber affair.

Filmed in Cinemascope (though without a whole lot of filmmaking style despite its special effects), "Dogma" opens with a bang as three sinister-looking young hockey players attack and beat an old man to a pulp as he watches the ocean waves on a New Jersey boardwalk. At the same time, New Jersey Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) announces to a small group of parishioners and reporters that he will put into motion a campaign to help revive interest in the Church, whose attendance has been steadily falling. At this point Smith offers the first of many sophomoric, flat-out unworkable sight gags, as Glick unveils a statue of Jesus not in the traditional posture of crucifixion, but with a wink, a thumbs-up, and an arm extended to greet a following. (Other crude humor, some which could more than compete with the vulgarities of Smith's "Mallrats," include an image of a man reading Hustler magazine in his pew; a walking poop demon which emerges from a toilet bowl and which represents the waste products which have fallen from people who have been crucified; a naked angel's falling from the heavens and landing with a thud on a highway; and a talk between a hip young woman and a nun in which the sister becomes convinced she should get a man and have fun.

The story centers on Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a lapsed Catholic working in an abortion clinic, who has been strangely chosen by the angel Metatron (Alan Rickman) to save the world from extinction. Two cast-out angels, Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon), exiled for a millennium to Wisconsin, are eager to go back home to heaven. They have found a loophole that would enable them to do so. They need only walk through an arch in a small New Jersey church and they'll be on their way, but since this loophole proves God's fallibility, the world would be destroyed. Obviously these angels must be stopped.

Holy figures and demonic forms mix freely with human beings in this wildly imaginative movie that uses Monty Python grotesqueries, some crude and others divine; and a barrage of one liners, mostly plastic but with some treasures. Among the characters whose mission is redundant is Jason Lee as the diabolical Azrael, who looks like Tom Wolfe when sporting a large white hat but whose fiendish roots are unclouded each time he removes his panama to reveal two small horns. Chris Rock gets to spout old-hat raillery such as his insistence that though he is the 13th Apostle, he is unmentioned in the New Testament because he is black, while in a ten-second role a clerk at an intercity bus terminal informs some ticketbuyers that all seats to New Jersey have been sold for the day: "Never underestimate the power of the Garden State."

Just two performers stand out in this free-for-all whose ultimate purport, "Belief is bad because it causes divisions and warfare, while ideas are good because they are changeable," is belied by an actual appearance from God (Alanis Morissette). One is Kevin Smith regular Jason Mewes as the youthful, altogether dense young man who takes the miracles he sees in stride, who gets to proposition Bethany throughout the movie, asking whether she'd have sex with him if she knew the world would end in five minutes. Though he spouts the f-word more than virtually any other character in a non-Smith movie, each time he articulates the term he draws laughs. The other is Linda Fiorentino, so remarkable in her role as a femme fatale in "The Last Seduction," who does her best to cement a thoroughly undisciplined bedlam as a woman who regains her faith after discovering that she is a great-great-great-great-great grandniece of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the best scene in the film, however, is one that does not involve the obvious use of other-worldly forms. When Bartleby and Loki invade a corporate board room, they hilariously point out the indiscretions of all but one well-heeled member of these film studio suits--people who have profaned their trade for eons by plying their films onto an altogether too undemanding public, now condemned as well for making their families miserable.

What this meandering film needs is a good editor. 135 minutes of largely undisciplined muddle is too much to ask, even of an audience perfectly willing to accept what some would consider its blasphemous nature. Kevin Smith needs to reign in some of the effects he uses simply for generating cheap laughs in favor of a more focused narrative.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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