The penultimate edition of Kevin Smith Month focuses on Dogma, a religious comedy/drama/occasional-action movie that was definitely a step in a slightly askew direction for the filmmaker. It was a move away from the pure chatty-chatty of his opening trio of pictures, implementing a lot of special effects and a gaggle of notable actors.
While rarely cited as one of his best, Dogma was still in that opening gambit of Smith’s oeuvre, meaning fanboys like me lapped it up. Seeing him get out of his obvious comfort zone and take aim at some of the self-aggrandizing and self-serious elements of organized religion was an appetizing venture, especially for a teenager like me who was regularly called a Satan worshipper because I liked Marilyn Manson. Was the movie any good though? What was the reason I not only purchased the DVD of this picture, I also bought two-disc special edition? Was I Nuts?
The fourth release by the writer-director, Dogma hit cinemas in November of 1999. It was a moderate hit, grossing a sliver over $30 million on a $10 million budget. Critically, the movie did fine, lacking the large amount of raves Clerks and Chasing Amy garnered and little in the way of jeers like Mallrats. It was liked, not loved.
Well, except by some religious folk. Understandably, since Dogma rolls out a number of rather blasphemous ideas; a divinely chosen abortion clinic doctor, an intentionally ignored apostle and the Buddy Christ. The last kicks off our movie, a new depiction of Jesus that has the Christian Lord and Savior winking and giving a solid thumbs up to the people, an alternative to the crucified, bloody version most commonly used. As part of the Buddy Christ rollout, a cathedral run in New Jersey is offering the equivalent of a full pardon of one’s sins to all who enter his cathedral.
This leads to two fallen angels (played by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) to try and squirm their way back into the Pearly Gates. Fine for them, bad for everyone else, as said action will bring about the end of all existence. Chosen to stop them is Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), the aforementioned clinic employee with a little bit of an issue against God for letting her be infertile. Bethany begrudgingly accepts her mission, getting some help along the way by several Biblical figures and, of course, Jay and Silent Bob.
Coming at the tail-end of high school, Dogma never got into my veins like Smith’s previous efforts. I was still amped to see it though, even if I had no clue where to find it. This left waiting for its home-release, which I quickly purchased on this new fangled thing called a DVD. I popped that thing into my dad’s PC and consumed delightedly.
I failed to truly love Dogma, but its ideas resonated. While I’m not a religious person, the discussion of how theologies develop and shape over time, the ways different people decipher them and all that surrounds it nevertheless intrigues. Dogma, like many protested movies before it, wasn’t out to tear down a religion; it wanted to discuss it on a level beyond simple worship. Scratching at the contradictions of an all-knowing and all-powerful Catholic God compelled me, even if the narrative and acting in Dogma didn’t always match it.
For me, Dogma was a good movie, with an ambition that outreached its grasp. It was a glimpse at what Smith could become, before spending a decade running back to his greatest hits.
Where I was timid last week about Chasing Amy, having such grander love and baggage associated with it, Dogma I’m sitting down to with ease. I have no clue what to expect outside of knowing the story. Wasn’t Jason Lee really good as the villain? Is Damon in a lot of this or is it more Affleck’s show between them? As long as there’s a good bit of Alan Rickman, how bad can this be?
I expect a bit of a mess. I expect it will be kind of a hoot too.
The level one likes Dogma might be based on how steep your curves are for an ambitious failure. The film works in fits and spurts, rarely for more than two scenes in a row. Interesting ideas pop their heads up here and there, yet Smith is unable to mess around with them with any resonance, in part because the plot is heavily muddled by an uninteresting lead character and performance.
Infamously, Fiorentino and Smith did not get along while making the movie. I can say nothing of who was in the right for their various disagreements. What I can say is that the part of Bethany is in shambles across the board. Fiorentino acts in mostly head tilts and constant blinks. She isn’t merely wooden, Fiorentino appears to be a different kind of species than the rest of the ensemble. In theory, that almost works, since she is joined by the living dead, angels and the like. Bethany is meant to be our anchor however, and the fact that Fiorentino delivers nearly every line in the same monotone isn’t helping matters.
Not helping is Smith’s script, which has nice ideas that don’t congeal. Having the hope of mankind and the safety of all that’s divine resting in the hands of a women whose lost her faith can compel. Most of the time Bethany just asks questions. “Who are you?” “Where did you come from?” “What do you want?” This is the majority of her dialogue and character traits. At a certain juncture, Bethany has seen a host of spiritual, heavenly things; many of which contradict her Catholic beliefs. Yet, she still rejects everything new and asks for more details. It makes Bethany seem ignorant instead of inquisitive and plays like an excuse to have its characters monologue a response.
Bethany and her band of merry men and women aren’t gripping. Jay and Silent Bob are back to their Mallrats selves after a retcon in Chasing Amy. Gone is the hints of humanity, back are the catchphrases, as they are introduced here shouting, “Snootch to the motherfucking nootch.” Them being cartoonish is fine; they mostly come across as slightly grating. Then Chris Rock shows up as the 13th Apostle. Then Salma Hayek pops up as Serendipity. Then Alan Rickman comes back into the fold as the Voice of God Metatron. Plus there’s Jason Lee’s Azrael, his three teen henchmen, a plot around the fake fast-food chain Mooby and much more.
Dogma is too crammed with concepts and characters, making each new one feel superfluous. It drags the narrative to a halt each time. At one mark I looked at the movie’s timestamp and was shocked to see more than an hour left. There is so much here with so little of it allowed to breathe that it’s suffocating. The movie is a mishmash of religious theories that can’t coalesce.
It does really come alive when Affleck and Damon’s fallen angels are on screen. Damon’s Loki was once the Angel of Death, with his best friend being fellow winged-one Bartleby. They were cast out of Heaven when Loki refused to continue killing in the Old Testament manner; mass slaughters. They were banished to modern Wisconsin. Their attempt to reenter God’s domain is a melancholy one, with the two actors really pulling off the confused desperation. Damon is almost giddy, thinking of ways to get back into the murder game to prove he still has what it takes and impress the big man. Affleck’s character is bitterer, prompting many of Dogma’s best scenes. He finds humans largely fleshy factories for sin. His only joy seems to come from undercutting his partner, perfectly played when Loki destroys an intercom that was about to used by some of his victims. Loki smirks and says, “All lines are currently down.” Bartleby gets up, mocks Loki and tries to keep his buddy’s theatrics in check.
It is only when these two debate God’s treatment of all things in the universe that the weightier elements come to life. The comedic gems only really click in Rickman’s opening gambit, where he runs through Bethany’s task at a cheap Mexican restaurant. There’s a lovely exchange where Metatron notes that God is lonely, but really funny too, pointing out the goofy faces people making during sex. Bethany asks if sex is a joke to people in heaven, to which he retorts, “The way I understand it, it’s mostly a joke down here too.” Of course, it’s delivered with that innately charismatic, uniquely Rickman manner.
It’s a shame Dogma doesn’t hang together. It really was a bold move for Smith at the time, even if he stays comfortable with jokes about masturbation and the apparent strangeness of having a nude man’s crotch rubbing against your favorite coat. There are simply too many ideas vying for screentime, thudding their way to a conclusion that seems to never end. Maybe if Smith had worked out these kinks. Maybe if Fiorentino was recast. Maybe if that character didn’t play as a sounding board. Maybe if he had any knack for shooting action. Maybe.
As is, Dogma is an interesting movie. It isn’t a good one.