| **** Stars
(US 1999) Rated R
Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Linda Fiorentino, George Carlin, Salma Hayek, Alan Rickman
Directed by Kevin Smith
Writing credits: Kevin Smith
Lion's Gate Films
All year, I've been waiting to be just utterly blown away by a movie. I've wanted to leave the theatre feeling glad to be alive; privileged to have seen such a work. In 1997, I had TITANIC. In 1998, ELIZABETH and AMERICAN HISTORY X. I had hoped that BEING JOHN MALKOVICH would be this year's model, but alas, 'twas not to be so. No, friends, thus far at least (with the load of films slated for November and December release promising to be like shoving an elephant through a garter snake), Kevin Smith's DOGMA is the film that makes my heart sing.
DOGMA's rocky road to release is almost sufficient for me to forgive Harvey Weinstein for his relentless promotion of Gwyneth Paltrow for every female lead in every film to be made from now on. If wordsmithing be the food of genius, then Kevin Smith now joins Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Dorothy Parker as one of the great wits of this century. Yes, Wilde died in 1895, but who's counting? Simply put: DOGMA is the most sparkling, intelligent writing put on screen this year.
I am the sort of ornery individual that will want to go see something if sanctimonious, self-righteous do-gooders deem it offensive sight unseen; so it was inevitable that DOGMA and I would find ourselves together last weekend. Yes, it's controversial. Yes, there are certain parts that might be offensive to Christians in general and Catholics in particular. However, this is not Christian or Catholic-bashing, but it does have the audacity to question not just Catholic theology, but the very veracity of the Bible.
The story in a nutshell: Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (inevitably, Ben Affleck) are angels who were kicked out of heaven for disobeying God's order to lighten up on the mass slaughter. They manage to find a loophole in the form of a huckster New Jersey priest (George Carlin), Father (Sammy?) Glick, who is attempting to market and revitalize the Catholic Church. Through the resulting passageway, they can return home. There's only one problem: If they succeed in exploiting such a loophole, it means that God is fallible, and then all of reality ceases to exist. Bethany Sloan, a lapsed Catholic who attends church regularly but who doubts her faith (Linda Fiorentino) is recruited by the angel Metatron (a staple of Kabbalistic mysticism, for all that he sounds like a software company) to thwart their efforts.
On the way, she encounters two unlikely prophets in the form of Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith, recurring characters in the Smith oeuvre; Rufus (Chris Rock), who claims to be the thirteenth apostle, Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a muse moonlighting as a stripper, who seems to exist for the sole purpose of including Hayek's considerable physical gifts; and a demon (Jason Lee) seemingly trying to channel Tom Wolfe.
Asking profound questions about the nature of God would seem to be an unlikely choice for a comedy. But so were the Arthurian legends and the life of Christ, and yet Monty Python managed to pull it off (with a disclaimer very similar to the one that opens DOGMA. If you are Catholic, there is much food for thought here, and even if you're not, this is fascinating stuff, written in sharp, articulate, thoughtful language, delivered by a fine ensemble cast.
I'm not one of those people who worships before the altar of Ben 'n' Matt. Sure, they can do South Boston toughs, but what else can they do? Affleck looks too much like the guys I never wanted to date, and Damon seems so wet behind the ears he makes Leonardo DiCaprio look like Clint Eastwood. But here, both truly show some stuff. Starting out against type, with Affleck as the peacemonger and Damon as the bellicose one, the perpetrator of the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah ("Genocide is hard work! All you had to do is read!"), these two attached-at-the-hip young actors spend the film riffing about their own image, including the gay rumors. It is truly entertaining to see a Hot Young Star like Matt Damon utter the line "If I had a dick, I'd go get laid....so I'll do the next best thing: kill people" (thus perhaps explaining the rise of youthful male violence in the age of AIDS and the Family Research Council). The shift in worldview between these two is beautifully handled, with Affleck impassionedly explaining his feeling of betrayal by God, because angels are merely God's servants, whereas He gave humans a choice; angels were there first, but humans are the favorite children.
Alan Rickman as Metatron, is clearly channeling the late Peter Cook role from BEDAZZLED. This angel is a sardonic drunk, yet world-weary at the awesome responsibility involved in being at the right hand of God. Yet in a scene in which Bethany is waist-deep in a marsh screaming "Why me?" at God, asserting that she can't possible do the task with which she's been charged, Rickman's Metatron explains to her what it was like to tell a twelve-year-old boy that he is the chosen one of God. It's a devastatingly powerful moment, which drives home more forcefully the notion of Jesus as both divine and human at the core of Christianity than all the television preachers in the world.
Let's just come out and say it: Chris Rock can't act. But in DOGMA, he doesn't have to. All he needs to do is rant; to do what Chris Rock does so well. As Rufus, he echoes every black paranoid screed you ever heard outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal. It's the Gospel According to Chris Rock that is most likely to offend Christians the idea that Jesus was black, that Rufus was left out of the Bible because it was written by white guys, that Heaven is as racist as earth. But Rock/Rufus is right about one thing -- that the one thing that pisses Jesus off is the things people do in his name.
I have to confess: I had no idea going into this film that Jay and Silent Bob were recurring Smith characters, though I felt that there was some giant in-joke about them that I just wasn't getting. Here, stoner Jay and sidekick Silent Bob are prophets. Jay is yet another incarnation of Jeff Spicoli, the First Stoner, immortally created by Sean Penn in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. Yet in DOGMA, the sex-obsessed Jay has so many good lines, and Mewes does this dim cutie so perfectly, that he nearly walks away with the picture. When God (high priestess of grunge angst Alanis Morrissette) finally makes HER appearance, never uttering a word, Jay says, exasperated, "What the f*** is this, THE PIANO? How come she ain't talking?" It's a line that had me almost literally rolling in the aisle. Smith also holds his own as Silent Bob, doing a lower-key John Belushi.
Most films that deal with religion and spirituality are at best, pretentious, at worst, preachy and ponderous. From THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST to THE SEVENTH SIGN to AGNES OF GOD, most such films prove the observation of Serendipity the muse: that we don't celebrate our spirituality, we mourn it. Smith's film treats Catholicism like Grandpa Simpson an irritating old codger who exasperates him, but whom he genuinely loves. Far from being an affront to God and spirituality, DOGMA is an acknowledgement and a celebration of the tremendous gift we all have, of being able to think, and ponder, about the nature of God.
by Jill Cozzi
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