Dogma entertained me but it did not impress me.
Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Clerks) is both a good writer and a bad writer. His ideas are inventive, perceptive, and honest. His material is some of the freshest around. On the other hand, his characters speak in wordy monologues and obvious plot-driven exposition.
Dogma is a comic-book-like story of two angels bent on getting into heaven as human souls. Their plan is to become human, walk through a Catholic loophole to purify themselves, then die and go to straight to heaven. Of course, once they do this all of creation will be unmade, but what do they care? No foul, no harm, right?
The mythic rules of this heroic tale are those of the rich, complex world of Catholic dogma. The hero (Bethany, played by Linda Fiorentino) is referred to as the Last Scion. Her spirit guides are the Seraphim Metatron (how’s that for a comic book name? — he’s played by Alan Rickman) and the thirteenth Apostle (Chris Rock). She’s aided by two prophets (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith, reprising their roles as Jay and Silent Bob). And the beast trying to stop her is the Demon Azrael (Jason Lee) who abets the fallen angels and sends three skating minions and a Shit Demon against the hero (okay, maybe the Shit Demon isn’t a Catholic symbol).
At first glance it seems irreverent, if not downright heretical. Among other things, Bethany works at an abortion clinic and must perform euthanasia to save the world. But deeper down, Smith really seems to take it seriously. He does poke fun at the church, but always as an insider, like he’s making fun of himself. He never takes any cruel, cheap shots, and he never disses it just to shock or annoy. There’s always a sense of real acceptance of and interest in the church. No other movie in recent memory has so many characters talking seriously about religion.
Unfortunately this talking is often stagey and obvious. In order to work in everything he has to say, Smith’s characters speak as if in a play. Nobody interrupts the paragraph-length discussions on race, the structure of the church, and on the validity of “Plenary Indulgences” – the loophole that will allow the angels to get away with the murder of Creation.
Although the discussions are interesting and relevant to the topic of the film, a narrative film isn’t the best art form for Smith’s lengthy speeches. A comic book would be much more appropriate. (On the other hand, feature filmmaking has a broader audience for Smith’s message. As Metatron said, “If there isn’t a movie about it, it isn’t worth knowing, is it?”)
As a non-Catholic, I found Dogma to be entertaining, but I could tell that about half of the jokes went over my head. I felt like I was the third person in a conversation between two old friends. In other words, Smith’s movie did not speak to me at all.
To Catholics with a sense of humor about themselves, I would recommend this movie more highly. For the rest of us, it’s an entertaining, if unimpressive matinee.