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Dogma

There’s a lot to be said about Kevin Smith. On the one hand, he’s one of the most prominent geeks in Hollywood and a gifted comedic writer. On the other hand, it could easily be said that he’s not a very good director and I’d be hard-pressed to argue. The guy can’t shoot action to save his life, his visuals are totally unimpressive and he seems either unwilling or unable to improve his craft. He turned in some great — dare I say influential — stuff in the ’90s, but his output since the turn of the century has either been middling (Zack and Miri Make a Porno), disastrous (Cop Out) or non-existent (Red State, his failed attempts at Superman Returns and The Green Hornet).

But just before his ’90s heyday came to a close, Smith delivered Dogma unto us.

I first found this movie during my high school years. At the time, I was rapidly approaching voting age while the worst of the events surrounding 9/11 and the Middle East wars were still current events. I had to do a lot of growing up back then, and that meant figuring out my views on current events in particular and the world in general. Part of that naturally meant that I had to come to my own conclusions about religion and its place in this world.

Now a few years older and wiser, I’ve come to identify myself as an agnostic. I have absolutely no idea what made this universe or why, I don’t pretend to know what waits for us after death and I don’t believe anyone who claims to have these answers. I simply go about my life with the faith that somehow, someday, everything is going to work out for the best. Dogma wasn’t the only contributing factor in this outlook, but it sure was a big one.

It helped that the movie is very funny. Most of the comedy here comes from Smith and Jason Mewes, playing Smith’s two favorite cash cows, but the rest of the cast does a great job at bringing the laughs as well. Alan Rickman brings a wonderfully dry and sarcastic tone to Metatron, the voice of God. Chris Rock is just as great here as he is in his stand-up, which is certainly a rarity in his movies. Jason Lee makes for a snarky and threatening villain. Salma Hayek makes a strong and charming performance out of what little she’s given. George Carlin doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but he plays Cardinal Glick as the personification of every gripe he ever had against Catholicism in his stand-up.

Then there’s Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. These two bring a lifetime of friendship to their roles and their resulting chemistry onscreen is wonderful. Matt Damon clearly had a ball playing his role and he makes the former Angel of Death a surprisingly fun character. As for Ben Affleck… wow. He’s been in a lot of bad movies since (Daredevil, Gigli, Paycheck, Surviving Christmas….), but every time another of his movies bombed, I remembered his performance as Bartleby and was reminded that this guy can act. Truly great monologues are an increasingly rare thing in movies, and Affleck gets two of them here. His boardroom speech is hilarious from start to finish, and his monologue in the parking lot… seriously, just watch this. Where on earth did that fire come from and where did it go in the six years following?

Last but not least, there’s Linda Fiorentino playing our protagonist, Bethany. There’s really not a lot to say about her, though I suppose that’s the point. Really, she’s playing the “straight man” role, designed to be a sounding board for the jokes and religious observations going on around her and it’s a role she plays very well. For the most part, she’s just blank enough for the audience to easily project itself onto her, but not nearly so blank that she doesn’t come off as a complete non-entity.

It also helps that her development neatly matches that of the audience: There’s a point in the movie when Bethany learns a huge revelation that Metatron had previously withheld from her. “Would you — could you have believed me?” said he. “Only after everything you’ve seen, everything you’ve heard could you possibly be able to accept the truth.” He could’ve said it to the audience just as easily. From that point onward, the movie throws increasingly implausible things at us (God’s a skee-ball fanatic. Really.) and we’re ready to accept them at that point because Bethany is.

Now, I know full well that most of the comedy here is pretty juvenile. The movie has more than its fair share of crude sex jokes, mostly thanks to Jay and Silent Bob, and two or three movies’ worth of scatological humor from the Golgothan. Fortunately, there’s also some more subtle humor (“We went through five Adams…”), and some neat bits of satire (pretty much everything involving Cardinal Glick, including the famous Buddy Christ).

There are also times when Smith chooses to make religious observations with sincerity, rather than humor. My personal favorite — the one that I really latched onto as a foundation of my views on spirituality — is the notion that it’s better to have a malleable idea than a belief that can’t be challenged. That it doesn’t matter what faith you have, just that you have faith. Another central cornerstone of the movie is that God has a great sense of humor. This is a concept that I find very comforting, and it certainly would explain a lot.

It’s a good thing that the writing and casting in this movie are so strong, because there’s otherwise nothing remarkable about this movie. The camera work is totally bland, the editing is sloppy, the score is mediocre, the action scenes are pathetic and the attempts at special effects are outright pitiful. Basically, it all adds up to one thing: For a director, Kevin Smith is a hell of a writer.

This film is not a technical masterpiece and it’s loaded with cheap low-brow gags. But unlike most cheap low-brow comedies cluttering up the market today, this one clearly has a brain behind it. There’s a surprising amount of intelligence and sincerity to be found here, with the baser jokes clearly serving as sugar to help the medicine go down. I’d highly recommend this movie to Judeo-Christians of any denomination and degree, so long as they remember to bring their sense of humor.

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