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"DOGMA"
(1999) (Linda Fiorentino, Matt Damon) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: An agnostic Catholic, two unlikely prophets, the thirteenth disciple and a muse try to prevent two fallen angels from reentering Heaven through a religious loophole and thus wiping out all existence.
PLOT:
Bethany (LINDA FIORENTINO) is a woman's clinic employee and practicing Catholic whose turn in life has caused her to question her belief in God. Thus, she's rather surprised when Metatron (ALAN RICKMAN), an angel serving as the voice of God, approaches her with a holy crusade.

It appears that Cardinal Glick (GEORGE CARLIN), the founder of the Catholicism WOW! movement designed to reinvigorate the Church has unknowingly opened a celestial loophole that two fallen angels, Bartleby (BEN AFFLECK) and Loki (MATT DAMON), the angel of death, plan to use to return to Heaven. By doing so, they would prove God fallible and thus wipe out all existence.

Although initially skeptical, Bethany agrees to head off to Glick's New Jersey church. Along the way she picks up the two "prophets" Metatron had promised would assist her, Jay (JASON MEWES), a long- haired, profanity spewing dude who wants to get into bed with Bethany, and Silent Bob (KEVIN SMITH), who barely utters any words. They then pick up Rufus (CHRIS ROCK), the forgotten and disgruntled 13th apostle, as well as Serendipity (SALMA HAYEK), a muse posing as a stripper.

As Bethany and her ragtag group head off on their road trip, they must contend with Azrael (JASON LEE), a demon who, with the help of his street hockey thugs, wants to aid the fallen angels and thus get revenge on God (ALANIS MORISSETTE), who's now missing. With the disillusioned Loki and Bartleby bringing havoc to the sinners of the world as they head from Wisconsin to New Jersey, Bethany and her team try to stop them from passing through Glick's church doors and thus negating everything and everyone in the world.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Comedy is a funny thing, and that's meant as a serious observation and not a cute pun. Ask most anyone who's tried to be funny -- whether for a living, at a party or at work -- and they'll tell you that the old saying of dying being easy and comedy being hard is completely true.

Since humor lies in the funny bone of the viewer or listener -- much like beauty is with the eye -- something that one or many might think to be funny might not seem so to others. When dealing with dark and edgy comedy and particularly "hot button issues such as politics and especially religion, the possibility of polarization and eliciting as much or more criticism than laughs progressively grows.

Such is the case with "Dogma," the latest film from the writer and director of "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy." Not known for delivering gentle, family friendly films, Kevin Smith appears to love wallowing in more risque material. As such, his films are usually laced with profanity, plenty of sexually related comments and material and more often than not, some really funny bits.

The same holds true for this film, although it will be interesting to note whether viewers see this as an exaggerated and comical satire of organized religion or as an outright, blasphemous attack on religion and particularly Catholicism.

In reality it will probably be both and will obviously depend on any individual viewer's religions beliefs, tolerance for such satire and, of course, their sense of humor. After all, some with strong religious convictions have equally strong humorous tendencies and don't mind some "ribbing," while others tend to go ballistic over something that really has no bearing on anything and will soon be forgotten.

Whatever the case, nothing stirs up publicity better than heated controversy and thus this film should be well covered in the media around the country upon its release. In fact, the furor over the film -- before anyone even saw it -- caused Disney's subsidiary, Miramax, to jettison the film to independent distributor, Lions Gate Films.

Now that the film has finally been released, everyone can give it the once over to see if it's really worthy of all the controversy. Not being Catholic, I can't comment from that perspective, but will say that if anything beyond a genial approach to religion upsets you, then you might want to skip seeing the film.

For those who don't mind, however, the film comes off as a mixed bag. While one can certainly see that there's plenty of material to upset those with strong convictions, Smith's satire also comes with a devout quality of its own.

For the writer/director isn't attacking religion itself, but instead certain aspects of organized religion and how many religious people have lost some or all of their faith due to problems stemming from it. Thus, while the satire is thick and the material often profane, it's laced with an underlying belief structure that softens the overall blow.

Notwithstanding the film's stance on religion and how viewers will react to that issue, the big question is whether the picture's any good or not. With an intriguing plot, a great cast and Smith's often witty dialogue, the film has plenty of potential, but in the end it's only half-realized as the writer/director can't quite manage the reins of what becomes a rather unwieldy project.

Things start off with a great bang, however, in the form of an onscreen disclaimer telling everyone not to take the film seriously, and that God must have a sense of humor after all, for what else would explain the platypus. While that description doesn't do it justice, the disclaimer is hilarious. It's also unfortunately the best the film has to offer, and while some other funny moments and dialogue are sprinkled throughout the rest of the film, it's simply not as great as some of the pundits are stating.

That said, Smith has a keen ear and sharp pen for dishing out the dialogue and as was the case with his past efforts, delivers some funny lines. Asked to compare the tobacco industry to Catholicism, a Cardinal jealously states, "If we only had their numbers!" And when a humanoid, fecal matter demon -- in an otherwise long and particularly unfunny bit -- is defeated by a can of air freshener, the person who shot it down reads from the can, "Knock out strong odors."

There's also plenty of "Tarantino-esque" dialogue where the characters talk about movies -- Bartleby jokes about Loki predicting "Crush Groove" would do better than "E.T." and a muse mentions that she was responsible for nineteen of the top twenty box office hits -- "Home Alone" being an aberration -- but while such moments are clever and elicit some "insider" laughs, the whole notion of using such dialogue doesn't have the sharp and novel edge it once did.

Other bits of humor are supposed to arise from the casting of certain performers in key roles, but this turns into a hit or miss proposition. While standup comedian George Carlin (who also appeared in the "Bill & Ted" films) gets a few funny lines as the aforementioned Cardinal, the thought of the highly irreverent humorist playing such a role is a bit funnier than what's ultimately delivered.

Chris Rock ("Lethal Weapon 4," "Dr. Dolittle"), fares a bit better, but doesn't do much more than his normal, caustic comedy routine, while Jason Mewes ("Chasing Amy," "Mallrats") and Kevin Smith himself reprise their roles as the long-haired, profanity spewing dude and his near mute colleague who have appeared in all of Smith's films. Mewes' performance -- as in the other films playing essentially the same character -- is something of an acquired taste, but he manages to spout profanity -- much like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy before him -- in such a way that's often quite funny.

Matt Damon ("Rounders," "Good Will Hunting") and Ben Affleck ("Armageddon," "Good Will Hunting") team up once more following their Oscar nominated picture and again seem quite believable as old buddies as prone to betting each other about any matter as just sitting around and making witty observations about the world.

Meanwhile, Linda Fiorentino ("Men in Black," "The Last Seduction") does a decent job as the central figure but isn't particularly noteworthy, while Alan Rickman ("Die Hard," "Sense and Sensibility") is quite good as the voice of God. Salma Hayek ("Wild Wild West," "Fools Rush In") and Jason Lee ("Mumford," "Chasing Amy"), on the other hand, can't do much with their secondary characters.

In fact, and acknowledging that the film is a satire and not a character study, the film suffers from our not really caring about the characters and/or their overall predicament. Unlike Smith's "Chasing Amy" that tempered the more objectionable material with decently developed characters with whom the audience could connect in one way or the other, the characters here are nothing more than cartoonish at best.

While that would be okay if the film were a nonstop laugh riot, the fact that it isn't and instead is filled with moments such as the "poop monster" that are dead in the water (no pun intended), means that the viewer eventually loses interest in the overall film. Although some will delight in the film's style of wit and humor, it unfortunately doesn't continually manage to deliver what it initially promises.

Certain to offend those who are easily offended and take things a bit too seriously, the film offers some funny material for those who don't fall into that category, but ultimately only comes off as mildly entertaining.

Too long at more than two hours, too ambitious in scope, and missing more often than it hits, the film benefits from a great cast and an intriguing premise, but ultimately becomes too unwieldy for Smith to control before simply running out of gas long before an out of place action sequence ends the film. Although some are stating it's one of the year's best and others are calling it the worst, "Dogma" actually falls somewhere in between and thus rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed October 25, 1999 / Posted November 12, 1999


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