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Review by Jason Morrison

According to the Catholic League, Dogma is approximately the worst thing on the planet. Their petition to prevent its release rates a link on the home page of their web site, and they've gone so far as to criticize Hillary Clinton because she is friends with Bob and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, the company originally slated to produce the film.

If you were to just read the Catholic League releases and not, say, see the movie for yourself, you'd probably denounce it as well. But as one of the misguided viewers who put down $5 of the devil's lucre to see it, I have a hard time calling the film anti-Catholic, or even anti-Christian.

Writer and director Kevin Smith seems to think the film is more like a tribute to than a savaging of the religion he was raised in and I agree. If you're familiar with some of Smith's other films (Clerks and Chasing Amy are his best), you know he doesn't exactly shy away from lewd and shocking humor. But in the end there's more to it than that.

The story certainly isn't Sunday school fare. Two angels, Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon), were kicked out of heaven a few thousand years ago when Bartleby convinced Loki (the angel of death), that maybe slaughtering people, even in God's name, wasn't a nice thing to do. They've been stuck in Wisconsin since then, but when a cardinal at a New Jersey church unveils a new image for the Catholic church (the 'Buddy Christ' replacing the gruesome crucifix), he also declares that anyone entering the church during re-dedication will be sin-free. This is just the loophole the pair need-so they begin their journey to New Jersey.

There's a problem, though-if the two exploit the loophole they'll prove God fallible, which isn't just embarrassing-it will undo all of creation. So the forces of good recruit Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), Jesus' last living descendant, to try and stop them. She is told to expect help from two prophets, who turn out to be Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself), two characters who appear in all of Smith's movies.

The pair save Bethany from three street hockey punks/demons under the control of the mysterious Azrael (Jason Lee), who hopes to keep her off the angel's trail so they can go ahead and end the universe. The good guys are soon joined by Rufus (Chris Rock), the 13th apostle (left out of the Bible because he's black) and the muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek).

Will Bethany and the group get to the church before the angels? How will they stop them? It is, in a way, almost an action movie setup, and in some ways this is an action movie. But mostly this is satire, and it has some of the best lines I've heard all year. Smith's talent is in his dialogue-his characters, though they spend about 99 percent of the movie talking, are saying some of the most ingenious, ironic and sometimes ludicrous things. When Rufus mentioned he was stoned to death, Bethany says, "Oh, you were martyred." Rufus (more or less) replies, "That's one way to put it. Another is that I was bludgeoned to death by huge rocks."

Much of the humor is derived directly from both the foibles of the church and human nature. True, a lot of it goes quite against Catholic, well, dogma. Rufus explains that Mary and Jesus had more children after Jesus-that's one of the sticking points between a lot of Protestants and Catholics. Serendipity says that God is a woman, but the Bible says "He" because all the writers were men. The troop are attacked by a demon composed entirely of poop-Smith is able to find justification for it in the Bible but I doubt any hard core Catholics would find the idea too amusing.

But this is far from a perfect movie. Though the witty dialogue is a boon, the characters tend to over-explain everything, telling each other (and us) all sorts of obvious, well-established plot points. A lot of the verbiage, in fact, could have been cut out or streamlined.

And some of the performances are absolutely sacrilegious-Fiorentino is terrible as Bethany-she reads her lines as if she's never seen them before and not once does it seem like she's talking to the other characters on screen. I found it hard to believe her refusal to accept what was happening, though when I thought about it her character should have made perfect sense-if an angel appeared in my bedroom I'd be freaked out too. But she didn't really seem freaked out, or overburdened by responsibility. She seemed to have something in her eye.

Hayek was pretty bad, too. Every time I say this people ask me if I really expected a good performance from her-she has a tendency to play damsels-in-distress-with-big-cleavage. But since her character seemed sort of superfluous, too, it was hard not to notice her stumble over Smith's rambling script.

Damon and especially Affleck were quite good though. The two characters go through a very complex transformation through the film, in some ways switching roles completely. Mewes was his usual self as Jay, who's completely inappropriate behavior lent the movies much of its humor. Chris Rock was, well, Chris Rock as usual, and Smith showed more range with the Silent Bob character than he's ever shown before-okay, so he doesn't talk much, but at least his face is expressive.

Rather than the controversy what interested me most about Dogma was Smith's use of the Silent Bob character. Bob is nearly invincible throughout-he dispatches the hockey demons, the poop demon, and kicks the two angels right out of a train. In a movie where even god is vulnerable at times, it's hard not to make a connection between Bob's invincibility and value in moving the film along and the fact that he's played by the author himself. I could read a lot into this-the author as greater than God (who is, after all, a character the author manipulates). But I think this is part of a theme throughout Smith's work-on the other films, Bob provided with his one line the moral of the story, and often was in the right place at the right time to help each character grow as a person.

Which is why I found Bob's last line in the film perhaps the best reason why this is not a hate-film. It was addressed to God and her angels, and it was a simple "thanks."


(Out of five)

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