It's a sin about Dogma. You can't talk about the latest comic provocation from New Jersey's own Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy) without dragging in the baggage of controversy. Dogma has been lambasted as an assault on Christianity, sold off by the Disney-owned Miramax out of fear of attacks on the Mouse and labeled "polluted" by the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. Smith, a practicing Catholic, says he's only pulling the church's pigtails to get her attention. William Donohue of the Catholic League resents having God played as a mute by a singer — known for her nude videos and songs about oral sex — (he's referring to Alanis Morissette). Now who's being the jagged little pill?
Enough. It's no crime to use lowbrow farce to raise issues about the nature of faith on the brink of a new century. Smith's goal is not to ridicule the word of God from a bully pulpit but to give crass church business a satirical thrashing.
Smith's movie had me from the first hello — uttered by the great George Carlin as Cardinal Glick, the church's PR man in charge of replacing the depressing image of the crucified Jesus with the new Buddy Christ, who smiles, winks and offers a big thumbs-up that even Roger Ebert would envy. "Can't you just see it on chains around people's necks?" asks the cardinal, who plans to kick off the "Catholicism Wow" campaign with the rededication of a church in Red Bank, New Jersey. To those who pass through the church archway on that day, the pope will grant a plenary indulgence, which will wipe the soul clean of all existing sins.
The announcement catches the jaded interest of two fallen angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who have spent the last 2,000 years banished to the dull hell of Wisconsin. God has her own way of joking. Damon and Affleck are roaringly funny as sexual neuters who torment humans at the airport. Loki decides he can please God by killing commandment breakers, but Bartleby sees the plenary indulgence as a loophole to trade in their wings, become human and get back to heaven. Never mind that by foiling God, all humanity would be destroyed in the process.
Got that? The plot pivots on whether the human race can be saved by Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a descendant of Mary and Joseph — Smith figures they must have had sex — who works at a Chicago abortion clinic. Metatron (Alan Rickman), the voice of God, tells the agnostic Bethany that she must rediscover her faith and get to New Jersey in four days with the help of two prophets. They are Silent Bob (Smith) and Jay (Jason Mewes), the sex-crazed duo that appears in all Smith films. These Jersey boys had been on an Illinois pilgrimage to the home of John Hughes, whose teen flicks Bob worships.
On the road to Red Bank, the threesome watch a naked black man fall from the sky. Asks Jay, "Do you think someone threw him out of a plane with a message written on him, like in Con Air? Says the brother, "That movie sucks." Everybody's a critic, especially the man who turns out to be Rufus (Chris Rock in fine, feisty form), the self-proclaimed thirteenth apostle, not mentioned in the Bible, he says, because of blatant racism.
By now you can probably figure out whether Dogma is for you. Smith, 29, has written a fiercely ambitious script that never loses its raucous rhythm. As a director, he avoids showy effects in favor of bringing out the best in actors, including Janeane Garofalo as a clinic worker, Jason Lee as a whiny demon and Salma Hayek as a Muse who takes credit for inspiring nineteen of the twenty top-grossing films — all except Home Alone ("Somebody sold their soul to Satan to get the grosses up on that piece of shit").
Dogma puts greater demands on actors than any previous Smith film. Affleck gives his strongest performance to date as Bartleby springs quicksilver changes. And Fiorentino does herself proud, showing Bethany's struggle to find a place for the faith she had crowded out of her life with cynicism and loneliness.
Yes, Smith tackles hefty issues wrapped up in the miasma of pop culture. But pretentiousness is kept at bay. Read too much into Morissette+s climactic cameo as a mute and vengeful God and Smith will puncture the hot air with a joke from Jay: "Why ain't this broad talking? What the fuck is this — 'The Piano?'" No, just a Kevin Smith reminder of the first commandment of "Dogma": Thou shalt not stop laughing.