When the hounds of righteous indignation are unleashed upon a movie, invariably nothing in the movie itself really deserves the barking and slobbering. Dogma, the religious farce by writer-director Kevin Smith, is an agreeably rumpled and scattershot comedy about nothing less than faith. It asks the big questions: If there is a God, did He — or She — really intend there to be churches and factions at odds with each other? Don’t all the doctrinal squabbling and chauvinistic claims (one’s own religion is the only true religion, etc.) take people even further away from the basics as taught by Christ? And do women fart when having anal sex? (This is a Kevin Smith movie, after all.)

On one level, Dogma can be enjoyed as Smith’s big blow-out — his action-adventure/quest epic, with a cast picked to please the fans; it’s also his New Jersey biblical epic. If you ran Nikos Kazantzakis through the View Askew blender, the result would taste something like Dogma — a lumpy but tangy concoction that goes down easy. Smith begins with a strong premise: Two outcast angels, the former angel of death Loki (Matt Damon) and the watcher angel Bartleby (Ben Affleck), have found a way to get back into Heaven. The Catholic Church is kicking off a new user-friendly PR program with a surefire lure for sinners: Pass under the arches of the New Jersey diocese and you’re absolved of sin. Loki and Bartleby figure they’ll take advantage of this loophole, get absolved, and get back to Heaven.

They’re not the heroes here, though. Their scheme, if successful, will disprove the infallibility of God and negate existence itself. So God, in the form of a spokes-angel named Metatron (Alan Rickman), recruits a disillusioned Catholic and abortion-clinic worker, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), to help stop the renegade angels. Other metaphysical entities keep popping up: the slickster demon Azrael (Jason Lee), who’d love to see everything come crashing down; Rufus (Chris Rock), the obscure “13th apostle” left out of the Bible because he’s black; and a Muse named Serendipity (Salma Hayek) who got stuck on Earth and became a stripper. Not to mention the prophet stoners Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself).

What you hear throughout Dogma, liberally peppered with the usual prankish profanities, is Kevin Smith having a conversation with himself about his faith (he’s a devout Catholic in real life). He puts his ideas in the mouths of all the characters, each of whom defends his or her own theological turf. The ideas come out in a rough tumble, with the becoming awkwardness of flawed human beings trying to live by the ideal of God — or the awkwardness of a director struggling to make sense of it all. Dogma is fairly disorganized, but it has the honest heartbeat of a filmmaker busily stitching a bunch of elements into a crazyquilt of farce and faith.

Some of Dogma staggers and stumbles. An early test print ran better than three hours; Smith carved it down to just over two, and I have a feeling a lot of plot coherence is littering the editing-room floor. Bartleby, for instance, seems to undergo an abrupt shift in behavior, and the character of Bethany, though most appealingly played by Fiorentino, just seems to be along for the ride (she may be intended as the audience’s spokesperson, an everyday woman amongst a ragtag group of gods and monsters). The movie has everything including the kitchen sink; Smith juggles a lot of balls, and inevitably he drops some — as always, he wants to let you know every little thing that’s been on his mind since the last time you listened to him. Overall, though, Dogma is Smith’s most consistently engaging movie since Clerks — a rude yet, in the end, reverent ramble encompassing an excrement demon, a handstanding God, and everything in between.

Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, fantasy, satire

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