A very vulgar pro-faith comedy rather than a sacrilegious goof, “Dogma” is an extraordinarily uneven film that significant cutting might be able to transform into a playable one. As it currently stands, Kevin Smith’s fourth feature seriously belabors its assault on the established denominations and institutions, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, that he thinks have become too corrupt and calcified to represent the great beliefs they should convey with purity and vigor. The subject matter is highly unusual for an American film, to say the least, and Miramax, which had difficulties with “Priest” five years ago, has already saved itself and parent company Disney grief by removing it from its slate and offering it for sale to buyers, who were out in force for pic’s world preem in Cannes.
A name cast, led by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and a fair share of laughs could help generate some initial business at least, although pic should be cut by 30-40 minutes to maximize its comedy and minimize its scattershot nature.
Editing the film will not be a simple matter, as it’s not a question of eliminating whole big chunks, but rather of concentrating on the good elements of scenes and shaving off the considerable clutter and stuff that doesn’t work.
Even though Smith has an almost unlimited number of points he wants to make and introduces myriad characters and often crazy means to express them, the basic dynamic — a very distant relative of Jesus Christ is recruited to save the world from two vengeful angels bent on its destruction — is clear enough, so coherence won’t be hurt and could even be helped by trimming.
Pic gets off to a bumpy start as three demonic kids beat up an older man with hockey sticks, whereupon a cardinal in New Jersey (George Carlin), distressed over the church’s negative rep, kicks off his “Catholicism — Now!” campaign by introducing a new image to replace the crucifix, a statue of a jovial-looking Jesus winking and giving the thumbs-up sign. Numerous early cheap jokes, including a nun abandoning her calling in order to pursue the pleasures of the flesh and a man reading Hustler magazine in church, don’t bode particularly well for what’s to come.
Things begin getting on track with the introduction of Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a Catholic abortion clinic worker who is feeling a crisis of faith due to her disappointments in life, beginning with her husband having left her and her inability to bear children. Bethany is recruited by Metatron (Alan Rickman), a disgruntled angel, to save all of existence by putting a halt to a wicked plan being hatched by two fallen angels, Bartleby (Affleck) and Loki (Damon); latter were kicked out of paradise centuries ago and banished for eternity to Wisconsin but intend to re-enter heaven by passing under an arch of a New Jersey church, an act which, in Smith’s convoluted construct, will prove God’s fallibility and bring an end to the world.
For a good long time, Bethany has no idea why she has been chosen for this task, or how she is expected to go about it. But she sets out for the Garden State in the company of Smith regulars Jay (Jason Mewes), who’s obscenely rude and tells Bethany he likes to hang at abortion clinics because it’s a good place to meet available chicks, and sidekick Silent Bob (Smith).
She soon acquires some additional cohorts, beginning with nude black man named Rufus (Chris Rock), who falls from the sky and announces that he was the 13th apostle but was cut out of the Bible because of his color. Turning up as a stripper is a celestial muse named Serendipity (Salma Hayek), while a vaguely defined demon, Azrael (Jason Lee), pops up at intervals with his hockey-sticking goons to threaten the group.
It’s an unholy stew, but one with quite a few nuggets to be found in the pot. Intensely irreverent jokes and incidents are strewn throughout that make those in the much funnier “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” look timid by comparison. Firsthand accounts of God are given by the angels, while Rufus insists that Jesus, who was black, is “pissed” about everything that’s been done in His name over the past 2,000 years; he then adds, “Nigger owes me 12 bucks.”
At length, Bethany realizes that she is the “last scion” of the Jesus line and becomes motivated to stop Bartleby and Loki, who have started a killing spree on their own journey to New Jersey, making for scenes of mass slaughter that will prove even more disagreeable to many U.S. viewers in the context of current events than they would have previously.
If pic has a thread of seriousness running through it, it is the doubting Bethany’s struggle with her faith; she has every reason to reject it entirely, but something inside her keeps it alive, leading to a positive, ultimate, temporal result and a surprise fate that saves the film from pure sophomoric cynicism and anything-for-effect blasphemy.
Two hours and 15 minutes is too long for almost any comedy, and there’s no reason this one should run much more than 90 minutes, which would be plenty of time to contain all that’s amusing in the picture. The other, more insurmountable problem is that Smith demonstrates little interest in advancing his technical skills as a filmmaker; pic, which has surprisingly been shot in widescreen, looks ragged and unattractive, where a stylish look and more visual invention would have spiffed up the proceedings and enhanced enjoyment.
Cast members sometimes appear to be having fun and at others look like they don’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into, another sign of the lack of stylistic consistency and control. Mewes generates more laughs than anyone, followed by Rock, while Fiorentino provides the only vaguely emotional connection. Pop diva Alanis Morissette surfaces late in the game as a truly goofy deity.
Smith scored with his first and third pics, “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy,” bombed with his second, “Mallrats,” and has a problematic one now with his fourth. His writing skills and outrageous humor remain visible, but discipline is sorely lacking, a problem that could still be remedied somewhat with additional work.