Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dogma at 10: Saints, Sinners, Sleazy Censors

Written and directed by Kevin Smith.
Starring Linda Fiorentino, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Chris Rock, Alan Rickman, George Carlin, Salma Hayek, Jason Mewes, Alanis Morisette, Smith and assorted star cameos.

Reviewed by Steve Evans

For the next few weeks, during the 10th anniversary of Hollywood’s last good year, I’ll occasionally rewind the reels and review some of the films that marked that unprecedented burst of creativity in 1999. Dogma was one of those films, a picture that appeared just when it needed to, at a nervous time during the turn of the millennium.

Chubby auteur Kevin Smith's satire of Catholicism irritated leaders of the church, amused his fan base and spurred confused shrugs from most everyone else. With the benefit of 10 years hindsight, I am probably not alone in my view that Dogma has evolved into no classic. But it does deliver R-rated laughs for constant foul language, scatological humor, and brief (but potent) violence. As satire, that’s enough.

Let’s take another look…

The pitch:
A woman suffering a crisis of faith must stop two fallen angels from sneaking back into Heaven and thereby negating existence in this ribald, raunchy and occasionally provocative satire of Roman Catholicism by the director of Clerks.

By turns gleefully offensive, juvenile and, yes, even brilliant, this edgy comic parable deserved better than the hail of criticism that rained from some (non-official) segments of the Catholic Church. A contingent of bishops even called for a boycott.

Verily, film fans, here is the gospel: those who lose or even doubt their faith after seeing this film didn't have a strong grasp on it to begin with. Director Smith is clearly a religious man, if not a devout Catholic in the traditional sense. And he knows the Bible better than some of his critics. His intent here is to question the machinations and politics of the church, not the underlying principles of faith that members embrace for meaning in their lives. And Smith doesn't push as far as he could have: his camera never even enters a sanctuary. No blasphemy has been committed here, although the picture is assuredly not for all tastes. Perhaps the greatest offense, though, comes from people who would condemn Dogma without seeing it. We can't do anything about that, since willful ignorance and hypocrisy are not crimes in this country. Then again, neither is blasphemy.

Smith's great success is he removes religion from the holier-than-thou hands of official church spokesmen and turns possession over to the clumsy and imperfect people who must live in this world. For his trouble, the director received death threats and mediocre box office. It seems Smith pushed all the right buttons.

Aye, what would Jesus ask of his disciples? Direct them to threaten murder against a smarty-pants movie director? If only Smith's film explored such ironies....

A Bit of Plot...
Fiorentino (right) stars as Bethany, a world-weary worker at an abortion clinic. One of the movie's quiet ironies is Bethany's infertility. Alone in bed, she receives a message from God in the form of a fireball that turns into Alan Rickman (recall the terrorist leader in Die Hard). The sensible Bethany blasts a fire extinguisher at the intruder, then threatens to crown him with a baseball bat. She cools off when Rickman unfurls his wings and tells her to settle down. Affecting a fey English accent, he explains that Bethany must stop a pair of fallen angels who call themselves Loki and Bartleby (Damon and Affleck) from passing beneath the archway of a renovated church in New Jersey. These wicked angels once were God's messengers of doom – the fiery Old Testament stuff – but they fell from Her favor and She banished them to "a place worse than Hell" … Wisconsin. Eager to regain entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven after spending millennia in the land of cheese, they discover a loophole in Catholic dogma. If Damon and Affleck walk through the church in Jersey, they may have a plenary indulgence – what Catholics call instant forgiveness for all sins – which entitles direct admission into Heaven. Problem is, that would show God is fallible. And that would trigger an outcome worse than the apocalypse – all would cease to exist.

The cardinal of the church (George Carlin, having a blast as a holy man) plans to rededicate his sanctuary to God with a new marketing campaign endorsed by the Vatican. He calls it Catholicism Wow! At a press conference, Carlin unveils a statue of the Buddy Christ, a grinning, winking figure with a prominent thumbs up. Buddy is a new totem for a new generation bored with the traditional symbols and rituals of the church (The posture of Buddy Christ also bears passing resemblance to Mr. Natural, below right, the brain-addled philosopher in Robert Crumb’s acid-drenched underground comics. That, if anything, might rankle the devout, assuming they are hip to the subreference).

Back in Wisconsin, Damon enjoys toying with the fragile faithful. Wandering through an airport like some sinister Hare Krishna, he convinces a nun that she has wasted her life. Soon the poor sister heads off in search of fashionable clothing and a one-night stand with a random stranger. The fallen angels snicker at their mischief.

Bethany seems a strange choice to stop a pair of rotten angels. She is a reluctant hero, preferring to tithe her salary from Planned Parenthood to the church. Only when her life is saved by two unlikely prophets, Jay and Silent Bob (Mewes and director Smith), does she believe in the urgency of her mission. Jay and Silent Bob (below right) are recurring characters in all of the director's films.

Jay is coarse and chatty: a stoner with a sharp, foul tongue who cannot conceal his basic cluelessness. And Mewes, the actor who portrays him, damn-near steals the film. As Silent Bob, Smith has three words of dialogue in the entire picture, but his range of facial expressions can bring down the house. They hook up with Bethany after she is attacked outside the abortion clinic by three teenage demons wielding hockey sticks. After Jay and Silent Bob dispatch the thugs, Bethany wants to know why they're hanging around an abortion clinic.

“We thought it would be a good place to meet loose women,” Jay declares.

Together, this triumvirate is joined by Rufus, the 13th apostle (Chris Rock) who literally falls from the sky to help them.

Rufus says his role was left out of the Bible because he's black. He also claims Jesus once told him the meaning of life during a wedding reception in Cana, “but I got drunk and forgot it.”

They meet a stripper (the delectable Hayek), who claims to be the inspiration for 19 of the 20 top-grossing movies of all time. But she won't take credit for Home Alone.

“Someone sold their soul to Satan to get the grosses up on that piece of crap,” she declares.

Extending the metaphor, the heroes are soon attacked by an excrement demon that rises from a toilet and, well…what’s a Kevin Smith movie without a little potty humor?

While Bethany and her holy helpers ponder how to fight the demon, Damon and Affleck make their way across the country, spreading murder and mayhem. The fallen angels crash a board meeting of The Mooby Corporation, a company clearly modeled after Disney (which passed on distributing this film, fearing the ensuing controversy). Damon berates the board members. Enjoying the power of omnipotence, he chronicles their private sins and then slaughters them all, splattering their blood on the corporate mascot – a golden calf wearing Mickey Mouse pants.

Well, we get the idea.

Smith’s screenplay is crammed with pop-cultural references, both sly and obvious, from his curious obsession with Star Wars characters to ancient commercials for floor wax. At times, we wonder if he might be trying too hard, especially during the longish second hour when each character gets to deliver a speech (sermon?) that earnestly explains the importance of faith, regardless of religious denomination.

The director also wobbles at the climax, when angels Affleck and Damon lay waste to a city block surrounding the church. These and other scenes of jarring violence seem out of place in a comedy. The bloodshed throws off the tone of the film, illustrating once again that, as with most art forms, less is more. When the point is made, move on. Smith loiters.

Perhaps he’s struggling to maintain his momentum. Maybe he'll sustain that high note in another film (the last 10 years have not been kind to Kevin Smith). But in Dogma, after soaring completely over the top with two hours of anarchic excess, he literally ends with a squeak when Alanis Morisette arrives for her cameo as God. Morisette may be an impassioned vocalist, but she's no actor. And a movie that wants to push the satirical limit needs a climax that packs an ungodly wallop and an almighty bang, not the thespian exertions of a rank amateur.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved, except images from the motion picture “Dogma” copyright © 1999 Miramax Films.

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