DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
DOGMA (director/writer/editor: Kevin Smith; cinematographer: Robert Yeoman; cast: Ben Affleck (Bartleby), George Carlin (Cardinal Glick), Matt Damon (Loki), Linda Fiorentino (Bethany), Janeane Garofalo (Liz,clinic nurse), Salma Hayek (Serendipity), Jason Lee (Azrael), Jason Mewes (Jay), Alan Rickman (Metatron), Chris Rock (Rufus), Kevin Smith (Silent Bob), Bud Cort (John Doe Jersey), Alanis Morissette (God); Runtime: 130; Lions Gate Films; 1999)

 
"To take this film seriously is a big mistake..."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It was hard to believe how bad this sophomoric spoof on Catholicism is, but seeing is believing. Kevin Smith (Clerks/Mallrats/Chasing Amy) has shown what it takes to make a satire that isn't funny and one that doesn't have enough bite in it to be subversive (the director in an interview says that he is a traditional Catholic church-goer).

This one is a yawner, one in which I found it difficult to sit through for its two hours of childish prattle. It seemed longer than that; and, it was all in the name of getting beat over the head with the director's indulgent musings on religion, as he tries to gross the audience out with foul language and sight gags of unpleasant things; such as, a pile of shit emerging from a toilet bowl. Smith offers an irrelevant premise for an argument against Catholicism, an argument that is about as crude a one as I have heard in some time. It is also a film that left me disgusted not only because of its banal argument against Catholicism, but because it was a wise guy film shot with a sneer by someone without the temperament and intellectual stability to make such a metaphysical film work. The filmmaker is way over his head in this attempt to combine a serious argument with one of silliness spending most of his time lecturing the audience with his half-baked knowledge of theology and then resorting to shock techniques to get across his laborious point of view, as if it is a startling revelation he was revealing that there is politics in the Catholic Church. An example used by Smith to attack the church's dogma is exemplified with this startling question to one of the celestials who materialize: "What the fuck is this shit?" That is not the way a director who cares about what he is doing probes his subject matter, unless he is a child trying to get the ire of his parent and thinks his vulgarity counts for satirical genius.

The film's original distributor, Miramax, ran into trouble with the Catholic League who complained about the film's sacrilegious content and therefore forced it to be distributed by a smaller studio, Lion's Gate. The protesters were right about one thing, the film is offensive. But they are wasting their time protesting, this movie shouldn't be banned (I never want to see films banned). This film's only crime is that it is a revolting film and there is no reason to make its filmmaker a martyr, we have enough martyrs in the world already. Let those who want to see it do so, this is America not Communist China or the Vatican where banning what you don't like is a way of life.

This simple-minded tale begins on the boardwalk of Asbury Park, New Jersey, as a homeless man (Bud Cort) is beaten unconscious by three young thugs who are rollerbladers, clad in hockey garb. It is important for the story to note that the homeless person is put on life-support and will later be shown to hide-in-him the body of God, who will come out of him as real as sunlight and will be in appearance a woman (Morissette). Take my word for it, seeing God in this film is anticlimactic! The scene then shifts to a neighboring New Jersey seashore community, Red Bank, and a Cardinal Glick (Carlin) is trying to get a bigger audience for his church by starting a movement to make Christ a happier symbol for his congregation. That Carlin, a natural comedian, is not funny in this role, a role that is ready-made for comedy, indicates how poorly things are going for Smith.

The main plot revolves around the tale of two fallen angels, Loki (Damon) and Bartleby (Affleck), who were banished to Wisconsin (which is supposed to be worst than hell--yuk, yuk!) by God for disobeying him. They have found a loophole in church dogma to get them back into heaven against God's will and therefore must go to Cardinal Glick's church in Red Bank. The premise of "Dogma" is that Glick's church re-dedication will allow the banished angels to re-enter heaven, thus proving God fallible and, thereby, negating all existence. This plot might have sounded good after puffing some weed late at night, but by morning it should have been evident that it should have been tossed aside.

Linda Fiorentino plays Bethany, a young divorced Catholic woman questioning her faith, who works in an abortion clinic with Liz (Janeane Garafalo). She is evidently a special person, a distant relation of Jesus, and will become the human agent chosen to save the Earth.

The angel who speaks for God --  you see, God can't speak to us directly, his voice is too powerful for humans -- is Metatron (Rickman). He locates Bethany in her bedroom and orders her on a holy mission to stop the two fallen angels from Wisconsin from entering Glick's church. Fiorentino and Rickman are flat and unconvincing in their roles getting neither comedy nor drama out of their performance, just giving me a mild headache listening to them deliver their vacuous lines. For those who care, Bethany in the Bible is the home of Lazarus.

Bethany, while returning from the abortion clinic that night (it's never explained why she is there alone at night, but then again, if one was to look for holes in this story, the entire film would be full of holes), is pounced upon by the same trio of thugs who mugged the homeless man in Asbury Park. To her rescue comes Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), the director himself. They fend off the attackers and attach themselves to Bethany, showing themselves to be horny guys interested in getting laid.

Catholic dogma declares God's word to be unquestioned and to be a good Catholic one has to accept the Dogma without questioning it. So Bethany decides to go along with Metatron's story, reluctantly going to New Jersey to restore her faith in God.

On the highway to Jersey, Bethany's car breaks down and Rufus (Rock) falls nude from the sky hitting the road with a thud. You see, Rufus fell from heaven and tells them his tale about being the unknown 13th apostle, but because he was black the church fathers wrote him out of the Bible. A few more diatribes go on about the church fathers, that because they were men they blamed women for sin in the world. Also, the church accepted slavery and remained silent during the Holocaust, which compromised their teachings for universal love. The problem with these revelations is that this is not exactly fresh news and they seemed to be delivered in such a jarring manner, as if the actors were puppets just mouthing words that seemed out of place. There was just no flow in this film, just long periods of schlock and boredom and endless chatter.

Another helper is enlisted to the cause, on the road to Jersey, in the the person of a stripper- muse named Serendipity (Salma). She is discovered in a strip-tease lounge by the pilgrims heading to Red Bank.

There is also an angel trying to play both sides of the fence, covering all his bets, in the person of Azrael (Lee), a muse of Lucifer, who is in charge of the menacing rollerbladers. You see, Lucifer, he also has a lot to lose if God is proven not to be infallible; after all who would then listen to him, especially after he couldn't get back into heaven himself. So Azrael is seen as playing a double-edged game, helping God and God's enemies.

What goes for comedy is something like this, the crew is in a bar and Azrael, equipped with horns on his head, tells the bartender to make him a holy bartender and when he responds that he doesn't know what that is, he is shot full of holes.

To take this film seriously is a big mistake, which is why I have no sympathy for protesters of this film. If you got some laughs out of this mishmash, then you got more than I did. I just felt relieved that I sat through it and didn't walk out. Smith appears to be a very limited director: he can't shoot action scenes and his films are scatological. It was one of the most disappointing films I have seen so far in 1999, especially noting how it got some favorable comments when shown in film festivals in America and abroad. What is particularly disturbing for me, is that his religious message isn't wrong -- faith should not be a burden but a blessing and his view on the corporate heads who finance films, who worship only money, is not something that I entirely disagree with. I just don't see him as the one delivering this message.

REVIEWED ON 11/27/99     GRADE: D

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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