NYFF '99 REVIEW: "Dogma" Delivers Comic Powerhouse in Catholic, Corporate Context
by Ray Pride
Kevin Smith's "Dogma," subject of a bit of uproar even before its Cannes debut, will be talked about. But in the beginning, there are his words. Talk, talk, talk: Smith is determined to be our Eric Rohmer, but with better fuck-yous.
"Dogma" is a raging comic powerhouse, filled with the most basic of metaphysical contemplation and some of the dirtiest jokes in a movie this year. (And Smith's idea of God, let's just say She has some amazing dimples alongside her sweet smile.)
The movie begins as a New Jersey cardinal, determined to reinvent the modern Church, introduces a program called "Catholicism Wow!" One of his cracked ideas sets up a loophole in the rules that keep fallen angels from returning to heaven, and a pair of truly bad ones, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, begin stealing across the country from their purgatory -- Wisconsin. Affleck and Damon are almost too good as the frat-boy angels, as typecast for their looks as they'll ever be: shiny, neutered and mean. ("I just love fucking with the clergy," Damon's angel giggles after his first, small nasty steps toward furthering the Apocalypse.)
While several small groups that have not seen the film took offense, the smallest group to affect Smith's movie is the executives of the Disney corporation who used whatever means necessary to convince the honchos at Miramax to un-tether the film. While it's conceivable that "Dogma" may hold an attraction for Lions Gate Films, the savior-- or let's just say, new distributor of the film-- it's even clearer what elements of "Dogma" were unappealing to Disney.
Let's take the real religion: While Mel Brooks' parody of 1970s corporate takeovers was pointed in "Silent Movie," portraying the actions of the insane corporate parents Engulf and Devour toward a few measly filmmakers, Smith is a truly daring satirist, sending his avenging angels into the boardroom of a corporation that has made movies, videos, food tie-ins and a veritable mint off of Mooby the Cow (essentially a Mickey-Moused golden calf). The accusations fly, judgment is proclaimed, the angels take their bloody slaughter. It's a shocking scene, if only because satire is almost always de-fanged in our contemporary world of cowardly corporate power.
Smith mingles high and low with vertiginous effect throughout. His knack for the wild verbal fusillade remains unmatched, yet he puts it to double-barreled use here. First, there are his traditional pop-culture-stoked reveries about love, sex, and comix in the modern young mind. But second, and strikingly, there's a similarly heady batch of ruminations on Catholic dogma that are both clearly delineated for the non-Catholic viewer and studded with outrageous, wildly exorbitant jokes.
Smith, who says he was raised a strict Catholic, demonstrates an idiosyncratic form of affection toward the Roman Catholic Church, a personal take on the language and forms of faith that may leave him in several wildernesses. Yet he remains independent in the best sense of the word, following not only the extremes of his artistic inspiration, but also his faith--in movies, in humor, and in God.
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to FILMMAKER Magazine and longtime film critic for Chicago's Newcity. He writes about movies and the industry for many other publications. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker.]