Kevin Smith’s Dogma is a star-studded, religious themed, highly offensive, violent and gross R-rated road trip comedy about a descendant of Jesus Christ saving the world from two fallen angels. That madcap collection of ideas worked on me as a teenager. Now, not so much.
When I first saw Dogma, I was totally and utterly in love with it. Smith was my hero back in 1999, and this movie, so out there, ballsy and funny, really grabbed a then 19-year-old NYU student. Even in, arguably, the best year in modern cinema history, Dogma stood out. Upon revisiting it for the first time in a probably a decade, I wasn’t surprised to find I could still quote most of it. I was surprised, however, to realize it’s a lot messier than I remember.
In case you don’t know, Dogma is about two fallen angels (Bartleby and Loki, played by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) who find a loophole to get back into Heaven. However, that can’t happen because the act would make God’s infallible word false, and thereby end all existence. The powers that be tap a disillusioned Illinois woman named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) to stop them along with two prophets (Jay and Silent Bob, played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself) and Christ’s 13th disciple, Rufus (Chris Rock). Jason Lee, Alan Rickman, Salma Hayek, George Carlin and Alanis Morissette co-star.
It’s a clever, ambitious story that’s filled with the things Smith still does really well and really poorly. On the plus side, the cast is electric, even when they aren’t giving what feels like a home run performance (I’m looking at your Fiorentino). The writing is sharp, funny and upbeat, filled with plenty of Smith’s trademark pop culture references. Moments of genius are spread throughout.
It’s disappointing, then, to realize many of these things are muted by Smith’s filmmaking. Most of the editing is distractingly straight-forward. There are only a handful of dynamic shots in the whole movie. Long scenes of dialogue drag without camera movement or score. All of the filmcraft works against what’s on the page.
There’s also a realization that what’s on the page is so chock fill of ideas, characters, concepts, plot threads and mysteries that it feels bloated. It’s almost as if Smith took an entire lifetime of religious debates, wrote them down, then formed a story around them. On their own, lots and lots of the ideas are incredibly interesting. But shoveled on top of each other, scene after scene, and interspersed with Smith’s humor, the point of the film starts to get blurry.
What I think Smith is trying to say in Dogma is an idea delivered by Rock’s character, Rufus. He says that people should be less obsessed with believing in something and more interested in exploring ideas. An idea can change, a belief cannot, and there can be a violent gap in between the two. Smith is calling for a more fluid understanding not just of faith and religion, but of almost anything. He’s saying no one is ever 100% right and we should have an open mind to everything, consider all values and all points of view. It’s a worthy, interesting message that gets played out in a powerful way, especially at the end of the film as Bethany finally finds God.
However, getting to that point is a rocky road. The conceit is peppered throughout, and dramatized by Bethany’s journey—which itself is a leap of faith—but time and time again the film goes off course. There’s a shit monster, hockey stick wielding evil kids, tangents about the history of religions, gender discussions, racial discussions and more. There’s so much weird stuff packed into the movie that, at times, it has to literally remind you what it’s trying to say for you to remember it.
One scene that’s basically a microcosm of the film’s good and bad aspects is when Loki and Bartelby go to Mooby corporate headquarters. Storywise, this is happening because the Angel of Death, Loki, says he’s always wanted to kill the executives behind the false idol Mooby, who is basically Mickey Mouse meets McDonald’s. The entire thing feels like an unnecessary aside, however. Does it have some funny, interesting writing? Are Damon and Affleck good in it? Is Smith making a bigger point about America’s obsession with materialism and consumerism? “Yes” to all of those things and more. But none of them are the point of Dogma as a whole, and it holds the film back.
It also feels like, writing and directing this fairly epic film after three smaller movies, Smith’s work is laced with latent insecurities. The best example being the very beginning of the film. Dogma starts with a multi-page disclaimer that the movie is a “comedic fantasy” and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
The disclaimer was a reaction to lots of negative publicity and outrage surrounding the film before it was released. At the time, I remember thinking it was a very clever way to deal with that massive, media controversy. Now, it feels a bit like pandering and comes off as a confusing, dated way to start.
Still, despite all those caveats, there’s an undeniable messy charm to the movie. When Dogma does something right, it can hit almost any emotion you’ve got. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are having a ton of fun in the movie, Chris Rock and George Carlin are hilarious, and even if everything doesn’t exactly mesh, the parts are frequently greater than the whole.
Dogma will forever stand as a monument to a filmmaker finding his voice, and a bygone studio system willing to champion off-the-wall, original ideas. If you think about it, this movie probably shouldn’t even exist. Can you even imagine Dogma being made now, with all its controversy and vulgarity, wrapped in religiously-charged story that’s not based on a prior property? No way. Never. But it does exist and the world is better for it, even if it doesn’t totally work.
*Correction: The original version of this article mentioned that God closed the book on the View Askewniverse at the end of Dogma. This, in fact, happens at the end of Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back. That’s what we get for skipping the credits of Dogma on the rewatch.