Dogma (1999)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Canadian Bacon

Blazing Saddle

Little Shop of Horrors


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Our rating: four LAVA® motion lamps.

"Y'know what? We should
do a remake of Ishtar!"
Other reviews of Dogma you might read will probably focus on the controversy surrounding the film and its views on organized religion, particularly Catholicism. We think it's safe to say that anybody who thinks this film is sacrilegious has not seen it themselves, or, if they have seen it, have not thought about it. We prefer to focus on the film itself.

After a written prologue that shamelessly bashes innocent monotremes, Dogma introduces us to Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), two fallen angels. Loki used to be God's Angel of Death, but Bartleby got him drunk after the Tenth Plague of Egypt and convinced Loki to quit. This didn't go over well with God, and both of them were consigned to a fate worse than death: exile in Wisconsin.

Eons later, Bartleby has come up with a plan to get back into Heaven. In a few days, a church in Red Bank, New Jersey will celebrate its centennial, and for the occasion all those who pass through the church's archway will be granted a plenary indulgence. This means that anyone who passes the arch is wiped clean of sin, and if the angels can do this, they can change into mortals by cutting off their wings, eventually die, and then return to Heaven.

"No, I've never been in a film
with Jackie Chan."
Their plan does not go unnoticed. The angel Metatron (Alan Rickman), a.k.a. the Voice of God, appears as a pillar of fire in the bedroom of a woman in Illinois named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino). After she has extinguished the ornery seraphim ("You go around drenching everyone that comes into your room with flame retardant chemicals? No wonder you're single."), Metatron charges Bethany with a crusade. She is to stop the angels from getting back to Heaven, because if they do get back, they will prove that God is fallible, and existence will be destroyed. One would think that Pauly Shore's career and marriage to a Playboy Playmate would be all the proof anyone needs that God is fallible, but Smith misses this opportunity for a joke.

Along the way Bethany picks up some companions, namely Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself, reprising their roles from the previous three Smith films), the patron saints of slackers -- or, as Metatron describes them, God's latest prophets. Also joining her is Rufus (Chris Rock), the 13th apostle, who falls dramatically from the sky, thereafter embarking upon a one-man profanity marathon. How it is that these four unlikely heroes are supposed to stop two rogue angels isn't clear, but isn't that the way the best adventures begin?

One of these things is not like
the others, one of these things
just doesn't belong...
If you liked Kevin Smith's previous films, you'll like Dogma. Smith is still the funniest darned writer of dialogue, at least in the opinion of these two comic book/b-movie fanboys. We don't think anyone would say that Smith's dialogue is realistic, but his characters are well drawn and seem true to themselves.

Dogma's best moments arrive during conversations between characters who know that the events in the Bible are, to a certain extent, actual history ("God hates it when it's referred to as 'mythology,'" advises Rufus), and begin to debate the logic of the laws of Heaven and Earth. Dogma also tweaks some of the Bible's inconsistencies, like when Loki, on the cusp of getting back to paradise, makes a couple of amusing attempts to deliver Old Testament justice in the modern world.

The biggest drawback to Dogma is that it is not very impressive visually. None of Smith's films have been big contenders for an update of Visions of Light, but considering the somewhat higher budget film this had, and the fact that this is Smith's first film without his usual director of photography (David "DP Dave" Klein), we were surprised that Dogma didn't look better. This is particularly unfortunate during the action sequences, some of which are rendered incomprehensible.

Behind the scenes at a Kevin Smith film.
"Will you just say my @#$%ing lines!"
It would be tempting to say that Smith makes a better writer than a director, but if Smith hadn't directed Dogma, would we have gotten this cast? Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock, Bud Cort, and Janeane Garofalo are all top-drawer talent. Alanis Morissette turns in an enchanting performance as God. Ben Affleck, who delivers the line "Do I come off as gay?" Jason Lee as a demon. Plus, Salma Hayek is cast as a stripper. Woo-hoo! Pure genius!

Dogma ranks up there with Chasing Amy as one of Smith's best films so far. Although it could have had a little more visual creativity, it is definitely a standout in the story and dialogue departments, which, to our minds, is what really counts in moviemaking. And despite all the silly controversy surrounding the film's religious ideas, the important thing about Dogma is this: Kevin Smith's movie about Catholicism isn't funny because he dislikes Catholics, it's funny because he is Catholic.

Review date: 12/2/1999

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