I have to confess that I have a soft spot for Dogma. It’s very much the black sheep of Kevin Smith’s “View Askew” trilogy (of six films), veering away from incorporating his trademark witty banter and dialogue with a relatively new philosophical and religious undercurrents. Dogma is, in fact, an odd film by any standard – one part “group on a quest” film akin to The Lord of the Rings, one part slapstick comedy and part indie introspective dramedy. Smith admittedly has great difficulty balancing the different demands on his script, pulling it one way or the other. It doesn’t always work, but the cocktail is certainly interesting and – truth be told – I am actually quite fond of the film.
The plot of the film follows two angels banished from heaven who seek to exploit a church loophole to get into heaven, and “the last Zion”, a divorced abortion-clinic worker, is tasked to find them and stop them. As you’ve probably guessed from the summary, it’s quite a bit away from the coming-of-age stories that defined Smith’s early work (and, admittedly, most of his subsequent work). This is drama on a cosmic scale. And not on a much larger budget than Chasing Amy.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the movie suffers from its obviously low price tag. There are obviously moments of awesomeness that the film is cut around – grand and cosmic events which we always seem to just miss. When CGI is employed – for example, shots of angels in flight – it isn’t exactly the most impressive use I’ve ever seen. That said, Smith works surprisingly well with ‘old school’ effects – flaming messangers, walking on water, prosthetic wings – perhaps reflecting Smith’s nostalgia for classic cinema. While this love was always present in his earlier films – long-winded discussions of pop culture are kinda his niche – here he’s given the opportunity to play in a much larger cinematic sandbox. He has great fun toying with cliches and references that he hasn’t had the chance to before. One of the best laughs of the films comes when he incorporates a memorable quote from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I don’t think it ever overwhelms his work – certainly not to the extent of other pop culture conscious directors like Tarantino or Rodriguez, for example – but then I’m a nerd, so I love this stuff.
The most fascinating aspect of the movie is the way that Smith lets it speak to his faith. Despite the ignorant criticisms levelled at the film, Smith is actually quite versed in Catholic lore. Sure, he plays with a few ideas here and there, but it’s never disrespectful. It’s certainly not reverent, but it’s never disrepectful.
I should probably confess that I was raised a Catholic. I’m not sure what I am now – lapsed, to say the least. When Dogma came out, it spoke to me. Smith clearly has some deep-seated concerns with religion, but – truth be told – they are carefully considered and skilfully articulated, rather than the fashionable antagonism that tends to characterise modern doses of religious skepticism – The Golden Compass, for example, or even The God Delusion. The Catholic Church is a target for mockery here – and rightly so – but the belief system is treated with respect. And, isn’t it the belief system what really matters?
Smith has a bit of fun and expresses a lot of what went through my own head during my teenage years – isn’t the real core of Catholicism the humanism that comes with it (“do unto others”)? how come God mellows out significantly in New Testament after all that destruction and violence in the Old Testament? how much must it suck to be an angel to have been replaced as God’s favourites by us? – and he does a very effective job of integrating these core ideas with a modern storytelling sensibility. Nothing about his movie feels pretentous. Nothing really feels sacred. It’s just an honest selection of Smith’s reflections of organised religion.
Of course, that has some inherent problems from the get-go. It’s indulgent at time, and there is a bit of waffle here and there – but that’s part of Smith’s appeal. Various characters serve as stand-ins for explorations of humanism or free will at various points in ways that are a little awkward, but they always have things to say. It’s hard to gel this with certain crass touches by Smith – a muse working as a stripper, for example, or the demon sent as an assassin, or a weird scene of his two angels reaping divine justice upon a Disney substitute. I loved that mix – even though the film isn’t always perfectly balanced, it’s always intriguing. I might even go so far as to say that the film would do better without featuring Smith’s token twofer – Jay and Silent Bob, who would go on to get their own movie.
Smith admittedly has some trouble adjusting the scale of his storytelling. His earlier works like Clerks or Mallrats or even Chasing Amy were small-scale films that prided themselves on focusing on the tribbulations of nerds and geeks. Here he’s telling the story of what amounts to the end of the universe – he manages to find most of the dramatic beats effectively, but it doesn’t always fit perfectly (and, again, a lot of this might have been outside Smith’s control – the budget being the most obvious example).
And yet these quirks may serve to endear the film to you – they are part of why I love it. There’s simply no other film quite like it. It’s unconventional in any number of ways – while some of those conventions are conventions for a reason, it does help the film feel fresh.
His casting is – in my opinion – great. I have very mixed feelings about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as individual actors, but they work well together as the angels seeking to return to heaven. Alan Rickman is Alan Rickman. If ever a man was intended to play the voice of God, it was he. Linda Fiorentino is great, as she was in a string of roles in the nineties. Whatever happened to her? I adore Jason Lee, even though he’s probably bad for me – he just plays cheeky assholes so ridiculously well. Salma Hayek is a woman I can buy as a muse. The only casting I’m not happy with is Chris bloody Rock as Rufus, the deleted disciple. He’s always Chris Rock, which means raising his voice and widening his eyes at appopriate moments, and being condescending when he needs to be serious. He never works for me, and here is no different.
This is where I’m really going to be controversial. Are you ready, hey? Are you ready for this? Are you standing on the edge of your seat?
I don’t mind Jason Mewes.
He’s not Lawrence Olivier, but Jay isn’t the most demanding role. He’d need several re-writes to reach two dimensions. However, he is so ridiculously shallow and crass that it works. Mewes plays the role perfectly. His “Sherman, Illonois” bit alone is worth the price of admission. As much as his character and that of Silent Bob don’t belong in the film, it’s not because they’re poorly written or badly acted, it’s just because it doesn’t feel like a “Jay and Silent Bob” story, let alone one which needs to feature them more than the other three combined.
I like Dogma. Perhaps a lot more than I should. But, hey, watcha gonna do about it?
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | alan rickman, angels, ben affleck, christianity, comedy, god, irreverant, jason lee, jay, jay and silent bob, kevin smith, linda fiorentino, matt damon, religion, salma hayek, silent bob, theology, view askew