When Dogma (1999) was first released, it was met with all the usual protestors: the Harry-Potter-book-burners, who hadn’t bothered to see the film. From a copy of the script, the Catholic League were left with no doubt that this was a ‘blasphemous’ film: casting Alanis Morissette as God, and Chris Rock as the uncensorable thirteenth apostle. When interviewed for Time Magazine, Kevin Smith, the director and writer, hit back: “I’m hoping that when people see the film, they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s not the movie that flips the bird at the church. It’s actually kind of devout.’” Indeed, Smith has claimed that his Catholic upbringing is still strong with him, and that he attends Mass on the day before production of a film, and the day it premieres.
Smith had obviously built up a fair amount of pressure in his boiler about his native religion, and Dogma seems to be the vehicle he chose to release it: in one Almighty cinematic beef-dump. The stars were on hand to help out: and there are some decent performances. I can’t fault George Carlin for his hammy portrayal of a Catholic Cardinal, and Chris Rock is actually pretty fun to watch, doing his Chris Rock thing. Once you get past the all-too-brief reprieves from the stand-up comedians, however, you’re left with almost two hours of movie that are pretty hard to watch. And I very rarely watch movies that I find it hard to sit through. Linda Fiorentino (Bethany) is so hammy it’s painful, and Ben Affleck is even worse than Matt Damon. In the Team America sense.
Here’s the problem, I think. Dogma seeks to follow in the footsteps of the very venerable tradition of the political/religious standup comedy show, which has been so successful for George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Bill Maher. And I like those guys, and can watch a full show of Tim Minchin with glee (and he’s Australian: it’s not all dominated by the Home of the Brave). But when Smith tries to translate this formula into a plot, with as many big-name actors as he’s signed up (to bring in the audiences), he loses the personality – the ego – of these great comedy shows, and has to resort to alternating between two kinds of content: the B-movie shtick and the theological rant. The two don’t go together too well, either. Not like this.
It begins from the outset. Matt Damon’s character – a former angel of death called ‘Loki’ – is ‘opening the eyes’ of a middle-aged nun to the true nature of religion as a fraud, which results in her seeing the light, and realising that she’s been wasting her life. They get less funny from there-on in. I suppose Smith is hoping that meek, moderate cinemagoers are going to sit through two hours of these tracts, and have the magical seed of free-thinking planted in their brains too. However, I know that – at least for Mormons – this doesn’t seem to happen. For example, my wife Helen went to see the movie with her brother and a whole group of Young Adults when it first came out, and walked away feeling that although Catholicism was surely rotten right through, the LDS Church was even more precious as the last bastion of true religion. (If you’ve had a different experience, please let us know below!) My suspicion is that if you’re an orthodox believer, you won’t absorb the darts of dissenting thought, and if you’re a recently disaffected believer/angry post-Whatever, you’ll cheer on every sucker-punch. For everyone else: these are the same old arguments, and I for one, am pretty bored of hearing them.
The other side of the pancake is the B-movie, another venerable tradition that I’m a huge fan of. Yet, Dogma disappoints here, too. Sure, we get the juvenile over-sexualisation of everything from Silent Bob’s partner Jay, head-exploding gore and an attack from a giant-sized shit monster: but the first commandment of B-movies must be to ‘Not take thyself too seriously’. And despite the over-lengthy title disclaimers, this film surely has too lofty a goal to be an enjoyable B-movie. It’s also too polished (but not polished enough for Hollywood-lovers), has too many big-name actors, with too many soliloquies.
In the end, though: I’ve got to give a high five to Smith for giving the ‘anti-dogma movie’ a shot. As Alan Rickman’s character Metatron (the voice of God) says: “You people! If it’s not in a Charlton Heston movie, it’s not worth knowing, is it?” Cinema will (and does) provide the answers Smith is reaching for: they just don’t involve ‘Buddy Christ’.