Dogma is a great idea for a movie. Two fallen angels (Bartleby--no relation to the scrivener--and Loki, the angel of death, played by the dynamic duo of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, respectively) who were exiled to Wisconsin for disobeying God have discovered a technicality that will get them back into heaven. All they have to do is walk through a certain church's doorway in New Jersey and all their sins will be forgiven. The problem is, having done this, they will contradict God and, in a sense, prove his judgement wrong, which means the end of existence. God would intervene himself and stop this, but He, or rather She (you'll never guess who plays God, and I'm certainly not going to tell you, but she's surprisingly good in the role), has taken a holiday. Turns out She's really fond of skeeball and takes human form from time to time to play a few rounds. So the voice of God, an angel named Metatron (Alan Rickman of Die Hard), is forced to seek help among the mortals. For reasons that remain a secret until near the end of the movie, he chooses to call upon a doubting young Catholic named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino of Men in Black). He charges her with the holy quest of foiling the plans of Loki and Bartleby. She grudgingly accepts and along the way gathers up fellow crusaders to assist her in her task. These include: the little-known thirteenth apostle, a black man named Rufus (Chris Rock), a Muse named Serendipity (Salma Hayek of Desperado), and two prophets whose names will be familiar to any fan of Kevin Smith's films--Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith, respectively).

     And not only is Dogma a great idea for a movie, it's actually executed relatively successfully. Who can deny the wonderful comic genius of casting George Carlin as the Cardinal who is presiding over "Catholicism Wow!", a program designed to revamp and revitalize the boring, uncool Catholic Church? And, although the character of Jay can't exactly be described as the product of genius, I must guiltily admit that his adolescent antics are often extremely funny. Even Chris Rock, the irritating comedian from those terrible telephone commercials, is entertaining in this movie.

     The problem is the dialogue. Kevin Smith's writing can be cleverly funny, but it can also be melodramatic, corny, unsubtle and didactic. It is all of these in this movie. At times the characters become Smith's mouthpieces for voicing his opinions on Christianity. Thus Dogma is often a wordy, tedious, pretentious, half-assed thesis on Christian theology. Smith wants to tell us what he thinks is wrong with religion, especially Catholicism, and even suggests some possible solutions to those problems. Smith also tries to take on modern consumerist, capitalist society by satirizing the fictitious Mooby corporation, an obvious catch-all symbol for McDonalds, Disney, and possibly even Pokemon.

     But, of course, he is only half serious. Dogma is many things, but it is first of all a fictional comedy. It is not meant to be interpreted literally or as an attack on the Catholic Church, as the Pythonesque disclaimer at the beginning of the film humorously points out, and as the body of the film (or a mere plot summary) should demonstrate to even the touchiest, most humor-impaired Catholic evangelist. Unfortunately, it is still necessary to remind certain members of the viewing public, most of whom do not even take the time to examine the works they denounce, that, with very few exceptions, pieces of art cannot control our minds, and movies are just movies.

     Smith's version of Christian "mythology" is cobbled together from varied sources, including obvious traditional choices like the Bible and "Paradise Lost," and rather puzzling choices like Norse and Greek mythology. But whatever its source, it's a very intriguing and even rather comforting vision of the universe. Also, Smith populates his intriguing world with numerous intriguing characters. The two fallen angels, Bartleby and Loki, are probably the most fascinating of these. The motivations for Loki's defiance of God and for Bartleby's subsequent decision to end existence are interesting to examine. As for the other characters, I have to mention Alan Rickman as Metatron, even if it's just because I feel sorry for him. He can play an amazing range of characters, from lovably evil to just plain lovable (see Sense and Sensibility), but he'll always be Hans Gruber to me.

     But Alan Rickman is only one member of an all-around satisfactory cast; Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith aren't the greatest actors ever, but for these roles, they're just fine--perfect, in fact. One of the only real problems is Salma Hayek. Maybe I'm just reacting to the fact that she had the majority of the didactic, exposition-heavy dialogue, and that her character was almost completely unnecessary to the story, but she seemed pretty bad in this movie. And Jason Lee, the foul-mouthed roommate from Chasing Amy, is also mildly irritating as Azrael, a meddling, smarmily sarcastic demon. But in general the acting talent in Kevin Smith's films has only increased over time (for evidence, see his first film, Clerks--not that it's a bad film; in fact, it's great, and Smith's best; but the acting is done by amateurs and is thus pretty terrible).

     Dogma isn't a perfect movie. It's plagued by some of Smith's perennial flaws (his didactic dialogue, his corniness, and his lack of subtlety) and every once in a while the comedy falls flat or seems a bit stale (I remember that "No ticket" joke from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), but overall it's a fun film. It includes Smith's requisite reference to Star Wars, as well as lots of other hip pop culture in-jokes (viz. Jay's hilarious diatribe on John Hughes films), but it should be entertaining even to those who are not "in the know," and not huge fans of Kevin Smith.

Jim Genzano

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