"IT'S A ROAD MOVIE!" "No, it's a splatter flick!" "No, a screwball comedy!" "The screenplay R. Crumb never got around to writing!" "The cinematic equivalent of flying nonstop to Karachi seated between two religious fanatics who won't shut up!" Kevin Smith's Dogma is, from time to time, all of the above, and sometimes all at once. You're not going to learn anything much more specific here about the fourth feature film written and directed by Red Bank, New Jersey's answer to Jean-Luc Godard, particularly about its plot.
written and directed by Kevin Smith
with Ben Affleck, Chris Rock, Matt Damon, Salma Hayek, and Alanis Morissette
opens November 12 at Guild 45th, Uptown, and others
Unlike his earlier Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy, Dogma actually has a plot, and a good thing, too. Because without the tension, uncertainty, and surprise a good plot provides, Dogma would quickly grind to a halt, sunk to its wheel wells in sinuous, interminable talk. In all his films so far, Smith himself plays a character known as "Silent Bob." What a joke: This is a man who cannot shut up—in this case, about things like the ultimate meaning of life, the nature of God, and immanentizing the eschaton.
These are subjects that begin to pall for most of us (theologians apart) around the time we first get laid. Smith wrote Dogma more than five years ago, before acclaim for Clerks at the 1994 Sundance Festival brought him bankability. Since the scenario involves guerrilla war between Heaven and Hell, plain and fancy miracles, and special effects both complicated and gory, bankability was key to making Dogma at all.
BUT THE KEY to its success—and on its own terms Dogma is utterly successful—is credibility. It's the mysterious capital a filmmaker accumulates only over time that persuades otherwise sane artists to enlist in a project that must've looked on paper like any agent's idea of career disaster.
Among the brave volunteering for Dogma are Alan Rickman (as the Angel of the Annunciation), Linda Fiorentino (as the reluctant abortion clinic-volunteer recipient of his message from above), and Chris Rock (as a 13th apostle unaccountably overlooked in the four canonical gospels—and by all the noncanonical ones, too). Their pungent individuality lends reality to characters that could have seemed mere cardboard masks for the author.
More crucial in keeping Dogma from falling into self-reflexive monologue are Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as the two exiled angels whose longing for heaven powers the plot. It doesn't seem rational or fair that two performers this sexy should also be such good ensemble actors, able to play complicated scenes with other performers without ever losing touch with each other (a long, quiet scene set in an Amtrak club car is a particularly eerie example).
Smith may be, by his own testimony, "pretty much the least visual director around," but he has at least one trick that more than compensates for that: He can create a sense of space and stillness on the set that lets the actor's art take over and invisibly drive the drama forward. And for all its extravagant blasphemy and scurrilous comedy about sacred matters, Dogma is a drama and "a body of doctrines concerning faith or morals" as well (per Webster's New Collegiate definition of the term). Smith's dogma might be summed up briefly as follows: "This is the universe. We're all stuck here. Nobody gets a break, not even God. Get used to it. Go, thou, and party."
Not a bad message, even if you don't like the bottle it comes in. After all, nobody said you had to drink the bottle.