WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Fallen angels Bartleby and Loki think they’ve found a route back to heaven when a maverick Catholic priest offers absolution just by walking into his New Jersey church. The downside is that if the angels can defy God, the whole of Creation cannot continue; so the voice of God gathers a motley crew to stop them: a dead, 13th apostle, two prophets – one foul-mouthed, one silent – and an unbelieving Catholic with very interesting ancestry. Their slim chances of saving God’s Universe are not helped by the fact that the Big Man (or is that Woman?) hasn’t been answering his calls recently.
According to New Jersey’s wacky Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), Catholicism ain’t what it used to be, partly at least because of those miserable, off-putting crucifixes all over the place. So not only are they to be replaced by winking ‘Buddy Christ’ statues, but the Cardinal is also re-dedicating his church and bringing people in with a plenary indulgence, a clean moral state to everyone who walks through its arches. When this news reaches Earth-bound angels Bartleby and Loki (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), the latter a semi-reformed angel of death, they see the indulgence as a loophole out of their eternal exile in Wisconsin and head off to New Jersey, though Loki has one last hit on his mind before he goes home.
All of this should mean nothing to unhappy, divorced women’s (read: abortion) clinic worker Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), since her allegiance to the Catholic church is just a show. She cannot conceive, so she cannot conceive of God either, but the Metatron, aka the Voice of God (played by Alan Rickman as Frankie Howerd) has news for her: Bethany is the Last Scion, distant relative of one Jesus Christ. The Metatron charges Bethany with the sacred task of stopping the angels from negating the whole of creation.
She’s not alone in her task, though when her ‘prophets’ turn out to be celebrated slackers Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and director Kevin Smith), she would no doubt prefer to be. The sudden descent of 13th Apostle Rufus (Chris Rock) doesn’t help much either, but as the group make their own way to New Jersey they encounter forces for both good and evil, including saucy muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek), surly demon Azrael and his pestilent posse of hockey players, and even the avenging angels they have been told to stop. They don’t, however, meet God, last seen playing skee-ball.
Sounds intriguing? Of course it does. One thing you can’t fault Dogma for is a lack of ideas, and indeed the main thrust of its argument is that positive ideas can be dangerous if they become dogmatic beliefs. But despite a feisty opening, it quickly becomes apparent that Smith’s movie is a failed experiment. I quite enjoyed the irreverent satire in Carlin’s Cardinal and the banter between Bartleby and Loki, but as soon as the story opens up fully the film begins to fall apart.
The main reason for this is that having set up a film to be one thing (that is, an intentionally comic precursor to Dan Brown’s horrendous Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons), Smith then peoples it with ill-fitting characters and situations, causing some very strange incongruities. In particular, while Jay’s sex and drugs-obsessed patter continues to be amusing, you have to wonder what he and Silent Bob are doing in this film, especially when there’s only so much eye-rolling Smith can do (his few words are hardly show-stoppers) and Mewes’ limited acting chops prevent Jay from making any connection with Bethany.
Furthermore, whilst Rufus himself is quite cool, his talk of a black Jesus is poorly chosen attention-seeking (the Son of God is hardly likely to have been Caucasian, after all); more to the point, Chris Rock is handed the unenviable task of explaining and unravelling all sorts of ideas and plot points, to the extent that dialogue entirely overwhelms the character. Unfortunately, he’s not alone and large patches of the film are slow, talky, and a lot less fun than they should be.
There are, of course, incidental pleasures to be gleaned during Dogma and it’s far from a total disaster. But the entertaining bits are too far apart and evened out by incidental annoyances: Loki’s vengeance on Mooby the Golden Calf (or the corrupt suits behind him) is mishandled, on top of being a thuddingly literal rip from the bible; the characters’ constant ragging on movies gets tiresome; the special effects are wildly variable in quality, from the decent look of the angels’ wings to the sub-Dr Who-before-it-was-good-again Golgothan poo monster (a horrible idea all round) and Azrael’s silly stick-on horns. All of that’s without Fiorentino’s unsympathetic performance and the curious choice of ‘actor’ to play The Almighty. Few of these things are major irritations, but they all make the movie that bit harder to watch.
There are many ardent fans of Smith’s work and his off-kilter world, though I venture to suggest that few are quite as fond of it as Smith himself. He would certainly have been well-advised to reign himself in a bit with Dogma, not to tone down the controversy, necessarily, but to sharpen up his focus. As it is, he falls spectacularly between two pews, and Dogma is unlikely to find much favour in Smith’s stoner fan base or from the clever-clever set he seems desperate to impress.
Indulgence is the downfall of the movie, not Glick’s plenary one but the director’s, and it stops Dogma from joining the works of those Smith so presumptuously name-checks in the credits: Thomas Aquinas, Milton, Cervantes, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, amongst many others. In fact, referring to Gaiman just brings to mind his and Terry Pratchett’s marvellous Good Omens, a book that told a similar story – only with much, much, much more style.