REVIEW: Dogma [1999]

Score: 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 130 minutes | Release Date: November 12th, 1999 (USA)
Studio: Lions Gate Films
Director(s): Kevin Smith
Writer(s): Kevin Smith

“You can’t be anal retentive if you don’t have an anus”

Due to an overly self-deprecating humor, writer/director Kevin Smith will always be the first to say he lacks true “talent” as a filmmaker. From the ultra-low budget Clerks to a recent spate of box office failures, his work deals in eccentrically loquacious characters with an acerbic wit and extreme grasp of pop culture that live or die by dialogue rather than any unparalleled directorial vision. As a result the critical sphere and haters prove vocal about his propensity to entertain through vulgarity as cheap, tactless, and hollow. Being a huge fan for close to three decades, I’m admittedly not one of them and yet I can’t help seeing my love for his magnum opus Dogma as more than biased opinion. Unequivocally profane and blasphemous, it’s also one of the smartest cinematic treats of the late twentieth century.

Yes, following its sprawling ensemble and thought-provoking dissection of the Catholic Church with the two-dimensional road trip comedy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back did nothing for his rising star, but the one-two punch of Chasing Amy and Dogma demonstrated Smith had something to say beyond nerd culture. And even if he won’t admit it, these two films showcased just how important a voice he was against mainstream Hollywood, taking his hoard of devotees into big budget territory without compromising his very polarizing content. He earned death threats upon Dogma‘s release despite opening at number three in the US, rampant protesting against his cavalier attitude towards the Church, and international controversy that delayed release. In the end he even had to include a disclaimer to explain its existence as a comedic work of fiction.

I doubt he was surprised, though, considering he crafted his plot around two banished angels (Matt Damon‘s Loki and Ben Affleck‘s Bartleby) pouncing on a loophole in Catholic dogma that risked rendering God’s will fallible. Helped by a demon named Azrael (Jason Lee) and his teenage hockey bruisers the Stygian Triplets, the former Angel of Death and his Watcher buddy seized upon Cardinal Glick’s (George Carlin) “Catholicism Wow!” campaign’s decision to celebrate wholesale rebranding with a plenary indulgence at a Red Bank, NJ church that would render anyone who stepped through its doors forgiven of all sins. So, if Loki and Bartleby cut off their wings, became human, and received this irrefutable salvation, they would theoretically find themselves at Heaven’s pearly gates after death. The rub, however, is that overruling God’s word would negate existence itself.

Metatron (the Voice of God played by Alan Rickman) tasks the famed Last Scion (Jesus Christ’s final human descendant) Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) to stop them from carrying out their plan. She’s sent on a mission to find two prophets (Askewniverse staples in Jason Mewes‘ Jay and Smith’s own Silent Bob) with the improbable ability to help before the thirteenth apostle (Chris Rock‘s Rufus) and Serendipity the Muse (Salma Hayek) join their rag-tag band of saviors on a collision course with the increasingly enraged angels now seeking bloody vengeance on humanity for being God’s favorites. God herself could have prevented everything of course, but a Skee-Ball addiction rendered her incapacitated once the human form she took to play is beaten into a coma. Hence Bethany’s infertile abortion clinic worker putting aside all doubts to lead the fight for “good”.

It’s some fantastically biting commentary that pulls no punches. Beginning with an airport sequence of Damon’s Loki talking a nun out of her faith, Affleck’s Bartleby can’t help but incredulously ask why someone who knows God exists would convert the devout into skeptics. His answer is that he enjoys messing with the clergy. And why wouldn’t he? He’s been banished for millennia after taking an inebriated stand against God’s wrath, refusing to kill simply because it was his job. One moment of clarity led to exile yet humans receive infinite patience in return for centuries of disobedience. It’s philosophical satire born from Smith’s twenty-eight year wrestling match with Catholicism’s idiosyncrasies distilled into 130-minutes of unadulterated insanity. It’s everything he has to say about religion and it’s eloquently accomplished despite unabashedly including a Golgothan poop monster.

The myriad characters allow for his questions of faith to come from many different angles with a refusal to adhere to conservative interpretations. He’ll unapologetically let Rock state Jesus was black, let laughter reign with Rickman’s Shakespearian-trained surliness thanks to a lack of genitals and inability to drink, and allow Lee to grin his way through hilarious villainy as the mastermind behind everything. Add the abortion debate through Bethany’s borderline agnostic being forced to lead God’s army and Smith shows the power of humor putting big questions into our consciousness without the baggage of a more formal venue. He puts a face on these issues through his menagerie of dissenters thrust into situations that prove divinity’s existence. They’re either kooky vehicles for laughter or smartly crafted voices giving your stubbornness pause—it’s up to you.

Damon and Affleck exemplify this choice best through one of the best performances of their respective careers. While just a matter of them wanting to go home at first, it becomes something completely different after discovering the cost of their actions. Loki’s penchant for showy slaughter at the hands of corporate culture, amoral monsters turning fictional fast food chain Mooby’s into a false idol is one thing, but sacrificing the lives of innocents is another especially since he’s only Earth-bound because he already said no to that very thing once before. You can see his inner struggle and Bartleby’s one-eighty towards bloodlust as a mirror for personal introspection about our own prejudice and anger or you can simply enjoy the sharp dialogue and pitch-perfect delivery as they bicker with each other or monologue at their soon-to-be victims.

Loki and Bartleby verbally cutting through the Mooby employees is one of my favorite scenes of all-time. It’s an integral scene to understand their motivations and the biggest laugh of the film—a tonal duality to sum up Dogma itself. So much happens and yet every second is crucial to the whole whether emotional or funny. Fiorentino’s backstory is critical, her evolution authentic, and her headstrong attitude admirable. Mewes (who memorized the entire script after Smith told him to behave around Rickman’s consummate professionalism) is at his smarmy best; Hayek is sweetly entertaining; and Lee is having the time of his life. Carlin and Rock go over-the-top to varying degrees, but the film needs that blatant absurdity to be effective. This is the pinnacle of Smith’s career and the fulfillment of Clerks‘ promise.

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