1999, R, 125 min. Directed by Kevin Smith. Starring Ben Affleck, George Carlin, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock, Salma Hayek, Alanis Morissette, Jason Mewes, Jason Lee, Alan Rickman, Janeane Garofalo, Kevin Smith, Guinevere Turner, Bud Cort.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 12, 1999

With God as his co-pilot and the Pope as his press agent, Kevin Smith has come knocking on the heavenly doors of our cineplexes with his new movie, Dogma, a film that both pokes fun at the Catholic Church and upholds the faith. All protestations to the contrary aside (a humorously worded prefatory disclaimer opens the movie by positioning it as a “comedic fantasy”), Kevin Smith had to know that when you publicly screw around with Catholic dogma, you're likely to get called on the carpet for a little public penance. (Just ask Galileo -- not that Smith has done anything nearly as heretical as suggesting a paradigmatic shift in planetary primacy.) What Smith has done is create a movie -- a fiction -- that relies on Christian principles and characters for its narrative impulses and then extrapolates these elements into a contemporary diorama, albeit a modern landscape that is quintessentially Smithean -- in other words: funny, profane, potty-mouthed, and celebratory of the “false idols” of popular culture (just check out the film's ecstatic glorification of director John Hughes to get a good idea of where Smith is coming from). Kevin Smith is the ultimate fanboy, and it should not surprise us when he turns his attention from movies and comics and Web pages to the religious ideology that colored his youth. (“Give us your children by the age of six, and they're ours for life.” -- old Church saying) Dogma is like an underground comics version of the eternal struggle among the inhabitants of heaven, earth, and the hell below. As the writer and director, Smith adopts a “what if” stance, skewing some of the tenets of Catholic theology to create a storyline that looks at the religion from the other side of the rabbit hole. The film is funny, contentious, blasphemous, and surreal. With this fourth film, Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy) again demonstrates that he is one of our ablest writers of smart movie dialogue. (He also demonstrates that he is still one of our ablest writers of crude and unpolitically correct humor.) Smith, however, may surprise audiences with his ongoing intellectual dialogue with the Catholic Church. Dogma jokes liberally and the storyline's “what ifs” are a bit preposterous, but embedded within the movie are serious ideas with which Smith hopes to engage the audience. Additionally, Dogma is well-cast. Fiorentino's flat, world-weary tone is perfect as the incredulous “last scion,” an abortion-clinic worker angelically anointed to carry out the story's mission of preventing the end of God's dominion. Rock gives as polished and hilarious performance as he's ever given in the role of the 13th apostle, who was blackballed from the Bible due to his skin color. These, and other jocular heresies are rampant in Dogma, yet even though Smith jokes about Mary's marital sex life both prior to and following the birth of Jesus, never does the filmmaker question the principle of immaculate conception. Smith is pursuing ideas to their logical outcomes, and it's refreshing to see a director engage his audience in the dialogue. That's why the film frequently seems to bog down in tangents that go nowhere (especially the side trip to a mega-corporation's headquarters, the rampage of the shit monster, and the final action sequences). It's hard to discern how the editing job that trimmed approximately an hour from the film's original running time affected its overall coherence or would-be character development. As it is, I'm personally willing to overlook some of the film's obvious problems and take it as an act of faith that Dogma is one of the most intelligent, engaging, and gut-bustingly funny revelations to come along in a while.

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Dogma, Kevin Smith, Ben Affleck, George Carlin, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock, Salma Hayek, Alanis Morissette, Jason Mewes, Jason Lee, Alan Rickman, Janeane Garofalo, Kevin Smith, Guinevere Turner, Bud Cort

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