Directed by Kevin Smith
Cast: Linda Fiorentino, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Chris Rock, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Salma Hayek, Jason Lee, Alan Rickman, George Carlin, Alanis Morissette, Janeane Garofalo, Betty Aberlin, Bud Cort.
1999 125 minutes
Rated: (for violence, profanity, and blood).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 14, 1999.
At the opening of director Kevin Smith's latest opus, the 2-hour-plus "Dogma," there is a seemingly never-ending disclaimer (that turns into a hysterical joke) about how the following film should be taken as nothing more than a fantasy, and that religious groups (and movie critics) should take it as such. While "Dogma" is, in fact, obviously a fantasy with heavy religious themes concerning Catholicism, the main reason the disclaimer was tacked on was because this movie is, to put it simply, a long, rambling, intentionally corny train wreck of ideas and plot strands. If there had been no such disclaimer at the beginning, audience members would likely be booing at the screen five minutes in at its overall badness. On second thought, maybe being bad was half the point. I don't know why, but maybe.
Here's the rubbish (read: plot): Two fallen angels from Heaven, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), plot to be relinquished of their sins and allowed back through the pearly gates by walking through the arch doorways of a church in New Jersey as it's being hallowed. Enter Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a worker at an abortion clinic who has recently been struggling with her faith in God. Appearing before her in a ball of fire until she takes the fire extinguisher to him is another angel (Alan Rickman), who tells her that she has been chosen to travel to NJ and stop Loki and Bartleby, for if they step foot in the church, it could mean the end of civilization as we know it. Along to aid in Bethany's quest is the 13th black apostle Rufus (Chris Rock), the heavenly muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek), and, of course, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith).
The first fifteen minutes of "Dogma" are its best; so entertaining and rich in energy that I questioned whether it would be able to stay at that level for a couple hours, which it ultimately does not do. Jumping off and running as a spoof in the "Airplane!"/"Naked Gun" tradition, the introduction to Loki and Bartleby is screamingly funny, particularly their run-in with a nun (played to the comic hilt by Betty Aberlin), whom they encourage should take the money she has collected in her cup and buy herself something nice. The intro to Bethany is equally inspired and appropriately wacky, especially in her late-night chat at a Mexican restaurant with the angel who hands her her mission. "Are we in Mexico?" Bethany asks when they magically appear there. His reply: "No, we're at the Mexican restaurant right down the street from your house."
The proceedings in "Dogma" become shaky soon after, when Rufus literally falls from the sky and offers an extra hand in stopping the two angels, whom have recently gone on a killing spree of sinners as they travel to the NJ church. The tone of the picture changes gears here from being a crazy slapstick into simply being a cheesy, comedic hodgepodge, in which the majority of the jokes fall flat. While consonantly inventive, writer-director Smith's off-kilter mood quickly stops being particularly humorous and just grows overly tedious, with several particularly tough-to-endure dry patches, and a pointless interlude with a creature made of excrement.
While several of the conversations within the film are thought-provoking in their implications, "Dogma" is, otherwise, as light as a feather, with only the exciting, fresh cast keeping things afloat. Real-life friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, reuniting once again after 1997's "Good Will Hunting," have a chemistry on-screen that you rarely see, and their working together gives them an added spark. They are playing angels, however, so their performances stem from their philosophical, occasionally violent, personalities. Linda Fiorentino, in the central role, is the only thesp who remotely takes herself seriously, and her own internal struggles with her belief system is the most intriguing element of the whole film. And Salma Hayek, although having very little to do, is not only handed an amusing striptease scene, but also takes a stab at the comedy. Her best line: "I am the creator of 19 out of the top-20 highest-grossing movies of all time. You know the one with the boy at home by himself who had to stop those burglars and he put his hands on his face and went, 'Ahhh!'? Well, I don't know who made that crap." Annoying as can be is comedian Chris Rock; let's just say his jokes on racism are getting old very fast, and a little of Rock goes a long way.
Slightly too vulgar for its own good (Smith is head-over-heels in love with the F-word in every other line of dialogue, and it doesn't work well in the context of this film) and severely uneven on the screenplay level, "Dogma" is a petty little movie that can be pushed aside in the Kevin Smith collection, in hopes that next time he will make a movie more along the lines of his more biting 1994 "Clerks" or, his best film, 1997's phenomenal "Chasing Amy." Cameos by Alanis Morissette, as God, who turns out to have a goofy sense of humor, and Janeane Garofalo as Bethany's abortion clinic co-worker, are fun and, in the former's case, memorably funny, but what is the point of their appearances? "Dogma" is not supposed to be taken seriously, which is as it should be, but it's supposed to at least be worth the effort of going out and spending money to see it. It isn't.
©1999 by Dustin Putman