DOGMA (1999)

dogma (1999)
An abortion clinic worker with a special heritage is called upon to save the existence of humanity from being negated by two renegade angels trying to exploit a loop-hole and reenter Heaven.
3.5 out of 5 stars

Before independent directors from Generation X paved the way for a new style of filmmaking in the mid-1990s, indie movies of the 1980s had been segregated into highbrow arthouse films like My Dinner With Andre (1981) and direct-to-video sleaze like Surf Nazis Must Die (1987).

In 1994, the same year Quentin Tarantino wowed critics with Pulp Fiction, a new low-budget indie was also causing a stir and winning festival awards. Primarily funding its $27,575 budget on credit cards, Kevin Smith unleashed his slacker comedy Clerks. For the rest of the ’90s, teen movies were ten-a-penny: from the low-brow American Pie (1999) to Shakespearean update 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). If you were a teenager during this decade, there was a movie for you.

Smith gave a more mature examination into how destructive the male ego can be with Chasing Amy (1997), breaking boundaries by exploring not one, but two complex gay characters. Though Chasing Amy may be regarded as the directors finest efforts, my first introduction to Smith’s ‘View Askewniverse’ was Mallrats (1995). Although it never gained the same critical praise of its predecessor, it remains a favourite of mine. Scattered with profanity, pop-culture references and comic book dialogue, Brodie (Jason Lee) remains one of my all-time favourite movie characters. After shining a light on the complexities of romantic relationships with Mallrats and Chasing Amy, Smith decided to put the spotlight on humankind’s relationship with God in 1999, releasing Dogma.

Bethany Sloane (Linda Fiorentino) is an abortion clinic employee who’s lost faith in the Catholic faith. One night she receives a message from the angel Metatron (Alan Rickman), informing her she’s destined to go on a mission to save all existence from destruction. Partnering up with a pair of slacker prophets, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), the Thirteenth Apostle Rufus (Chris Rock), and angelic muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek), they must prevent two fallen angels called Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) from entering a newly discovered back door to Heaven.

Perhaps Kevin Smith’s most mainstream, yet controversial movie, Dogma contains his strongest cast to date. Oscar-winners Affleck and Damon proved they can carry the film alone and are excellent as the two angels. They both have great dialogue and chemistry while bickering about morality. Affleck retains a certain calculating edge to his character which suggests he’s more than capable of crossing the line when needed, whereas Damon’s natural charm ensures Loki is never entirely unsympathetic. Smith clearly wrote these characters with care and affection. From the beginning, their conflict foreshadows their character arcs, as we see they’re indeed two complex personas who can be sympathised with to a degree.

Bartleby and Loki verbally cutting through a boardroom of Mooby’s employees is easily a highlight. It’s an integral scene understanding their motivations. Not only does it create one of the biggest laughs, but it serves as a poignant message a few decades on. In the HQ of a Disney-meets-McDonalds corporation named Mooby’s is a room filled with male execs that have sinned their way to the top. As Bartleby lists their evil acts, they strongly reflect the views and actions of these types of men in 2019—especially in the midst of the #MeToo movement and the controversy surrounding Harvey Weinstein (who ironically who produced Dogma).

Fiorentino had a promising career in the ’90s with modern noirs like The Last Seduction (1994). Her husky voice and dominating characters inspired comparisons to tough dames of the 1940s such as Barbara Stanwyck. Here she’s cast as The Last Scion, Bethany, who’s the emotional anchor of the story and the person we forge the strongest bond with. Like Jesus Christ himself, she’s carrying a significant burden on her delicate shoulders.

However, perhaps due to being surrounded by a dominant ensemble of actors, Fiorentino’s one-note performance is underwhelming. Despite being the main protagonist, Bethany lacks enthusiasm and spirit, becoming overshadowed by those around her. Smith’s claimed the actress was difficult to work with, often becoming irritable due to the heavy workload—which corresponds with similar reports from director Barry Sonnenfeld about her behaviour when making Men In Black (1997). Tommy Lee Jones apparently said he’d only make a sequel to that movie if Fiorentino wasn’t invited back, which she wasn’t. Perhaps this friction on the set of Dogma resulted in the actress giving a halfhearted performance, we’ll never know for sure. However, it would’ve been interesting to see Smith’s original choice, Janeane Garofalo (Mystery Men), as Bethany, who instead played the minor character of Liz.

As Bethany goes on a journey to save the world, the supporting characters steal the show. The best is the wonderfully dry and sardonic Alan Rickman (Die Hard) as the embodiment of the voice of God, Metatron. On top of his classic reaction to being doused in flames on first appearing to Bethany, he possibly has the best line in the film about sex and God’s reaction to it. Chris Rock gives a better performance here than he did in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) as the forgotten Thirteenth Apostle Rufus. His star ascended after his stint on Saturday Night Live in the early-’90s and his many successful stand-up specials, and in Dogma he delivers a fine comic performance. His grievance over why he was left out of the New Testament is consistently amusing.

Mexican actress Salma Hayek (From Dusk Till Dawn) as the seductive muse Serendipity is splendid. In a male-dominated cast, Hayek adds a welcome dose of femininity. Arguing The Bible was written by men (hence why women are the basis of all sins), she provides a wider perspective on things (“you people don’t celebrate your faith, you mourn it.”) Jason Lee as charming rogue Azrael is delightfully devious while assisting Bartleby and Loki on their evil quest. My only peeve is how his subplot is a little underdeveloped. Amongst everything that’s happening, Azrael is is easily forgotten until his showdown towards the end. However, his ‘Holy bartender’ joke is laugh-out-loud funny.

With all the A-listers aside, let’s not forget the regulars of the ‘Askewniverse’, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith). Before staring in their own feature Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), this was their most organic appearance in a Smith movie since Clerks (1994). The promiscuous duo is given more room to expand on their characters, even though there’s not much depth there to explore. Silent Bob is the powerhouse of the two, kicking angels and demons alike. However, special credit has to be given to Mewes for delivering his dialogue so incredibly fast. As a recovering drug addict, Smith specifically told his friend Mewes to act professionally after he hired Rickman and, with that in mind, Mewes memorised the entire script. When Smith asked him why Mewes replied: “I didn’t want to piss Alan Rickman off.”

Smith proved he’d come a long way since Clerks. Yet those familiar with Smith’s oeuvre will notice the director has suffered from an ailment that has plagued a number of independent filmmakers. Similar to Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice), he’s found himself stuck in a comfort zone. After Jersey Girl (2004) received negative reviews from critics and fans, Smith was happy going back to his original playbook with Clerks 2 (2006) and Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008). His lack of confidence as a filmmaker led to a career of appeasing a small but supportive fan-base rather than challenge himself artistically. He attempted to break into a new artistic period with the horrors Red State (2011) and Tusk (2014), but nothing has matched the heart and ambition of Dogma.

From a writing perspective, Dogma’s script is wound so tight that it threatens to implode. Like Tarantino, Smith’s films are packed with monologues, rambling conversations, and incessant nods to pop-culture. With the addition of perfectly timed one-liners, twisted takes on the staples of Christianity, and a healthy serving of physical comedy, Smith wrote Dogma’s dialogue with such finesse it resembles real people talking in real-life situations. The delivery never feels forced and is always natural. That’s something I always enjoy about Kevin Smith at his best.

No matter where you are, you’re never far away from a laugh. From his trademark nods to Star Wars (1977) to a lengthy discussion on John Hughes’ movies, Dogma has more pop-culture references than one can shake a stick at. One of the only times Silent Bob speaks is when he throws someone off a moving train, imitating Harrison Ford from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) by saying “no ticket”. Another highlight is when Rickman remarks that all people know about religion is what we see in Charlton Heston movies—later adding “you people. If there isn’t a movie about it, it’s not worth knowing.” As a scriptwriter, I’d argue Smith was ahead of his time in the ’90s, seamlessly including geeky references into his work.

Along with its lighthearted and offbeat comedy, Smith does raise serious questions about Catholicism and organised religion in general. One only need to look at Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) to realise religion is a difficult topic to tackle in cinema. However, Smith uses the same satirical approach as Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). Religious groups were upset upon Dogma’s release and attacked the director and his production company, condemning the picture as blasphemous and protesting outside cinemas. Smith also received over 3,000 pieces of hate-mail. This resulted in Disney-owned Miramax washing their hands of Dogma, selling the rights to the Weinstein brothers.

However, those extremists fail to see the questions the director raised. Differences between ‘beliefs’ and ‘ideas’ are intelligent issues that Dogma creates. Rock’s character, Rufus, makes the director’s point clear. He says that people should be less obsessed with believing in something and more interested in exploring ideas. An idea can change, but beliefs can’t. Smith is asking for an understanding of not just faith and religion, but everything. Rufus comically yet philosophically says “he still digs humanity, but it bothers him to see the shit that gets carried out in his name: wars, bigotry. Especially the functioning of all the religions.” It’s a clever insight into some of the problems surrounding faith.

I believe Smith’s message is saying no religion is ever 100% correct, and that they should have an open mind to consider all points of view. Why can’t there be a Thirteenth Apostle? Why can’t Jesus be black? Who says Mary didn’t have another child? Smith isn’t labelling anyone or anything as being right or wrong. With his unique perspective, he’s just offering food for thought. As a raised Catholic himself, Smith isn’t afraid to ask important questions that could lead to constructive debates. Such as the 12-year gap between Jesus being told he was the son of God, to him being crucified. The director knows that religion isn’t perfect and is trying to point out the humour in it all. He backs his own ideas within the opening title card, stating “Even God has a sense of humour. Just look at the Platypus.”

Smith has often said he doesn’t think he’s a particularly good director. In Clerks the camera stays static throughout the many periods of dialogue. Smith never uses his tool to amplify the storytelling visually. Although, with Dogma he’s able to keep a fast pace. Working with Rushmore (1998) cinematographer and frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman, Smith overcame several of his problems as a visual storyteller. Composition wise, Dogma contains standard shot-reverse shot patterns that rarely push the boundaries, but the most strikingly staged sequence appears in the pictures opening scene…

As Bartleby and Loki are walking through an airport, Smith utilises the moving camera to his advantage. In a well-choreographed one-shot, the director captures a variety of humorous activity in the background. Along with the two main protagonists providing an exposition. Although far from groundbreaking by today’s standards, a skill such as this would only be found in high brow pictures such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). This was an impressive feat from the indie filmmaker who did Clerks.

The biggest drawback to Dogma is that it’s not very impressive in the SFX department. None of Smith’s pictures are contenders for Hollywood blockbuster status, but considering the higher budget Dogma received, it’s surprising it doesn’t look more polished. A bar fight with the demon “Golgothan” goes on for too long and we don’t see him take down the other inhabitants of the bar, resulting in a lengthy sequence with little payoff. The finale in front of the church fails for similar reasons. The chaos is being relayed to us through a news broadcast. Perhaps it’s the lack of knowledge staging an action scene, or the lack of budget to compose them properly. Nonetheless, for the audience to grasp the repercussions of the antagonist’s plot, we need something visual to amplify the tension.

At 130-minutes this is easily Smith’s longest movie. While his other films are relatively simplistic, Dogma has dense mythology and several different concepts to explain. With so much exposition to pack in, there’s no doubt that the pacing stutters at times. Bartleby’s abrupt shift in behaviour is never fully fleshed out outside of a short monologue, whereas Bethany seems happy to go along for a ride with a ragtag group of gods and monsters? Smith juggles lots of balls and inevitably drops a few. Allegedly, early versions ran for almost three hours before it as cut down to just over two. One can’t help wondering if a lot of material that would have made the plotting feel better was left on the cutting room floor.

Although Dogma tackles weighty issues, it’s not as sacrilegious as some claimed at the time. It was trying to point out the many inconsistencies of religious thinking. Although it was controversial in ’99, it still grossed $30M worldwide, which was three times its estimated budget. Smith remains faithful to his unique brand of comic-book dialogue—that’s funny, insightful, and overloaded with film and TV references. Visually it’s nothing special and the SFX haven’t aged well, but what makes Dogma stand the test of time are the performances and the director’s vision every generation can relate to.

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

writer & director: Kevin Smith.
starring: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Salma Hayek, Jason Lee, Jason Mewes, Alan Rickman & Chris Rock.

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