Review: Dogma (dir. Kevin Smith, 1999)

Although the awful comedy of Dogma could be blamed solely on how poorly it’s aged, that would be unfair, as many films from our childhoods have now been tainted with an appropriate measure of generational and cultural correctness. It’s important not to erase our mistakes by wholly removing homophobic and sexist slurs, but to raise awareness that these are no longer acceptable anymore; Disney has made an admirable, progressive effort by adding disclaimers before certain films on Disney Plus on how they no longer incorporate such ideologies in their films today. I wholeheartedly agree; as much I adored The Aristocats growing up, it’s hard to sit through many of its regressive depictions of various ethnicities without cringing. However, it would be unfair to accuse and single out Dogma of inciting harm through their 1999 ideas of comedy, which is heftily infused with the objectification of women and sexism, as so many films back then did so. What it is okay to blame Dogma for, however, is in simply being plain unfunny. And painfully awkwardly so.

Films that I refer to/potentially spoil in this article:

–         Dogma (dir. Kevin Smith, 1999)

–         The Aristocats (dir. Wolfgang Reitherman, 1970)

–         Good Will Hunting (dir. Gus Van Sant, 1997)

–         Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (dir. Stephen Herek, 1989)

–         Clerks (dir. Kevin Smith, 1994)

–         Mallrats (dir. Kevin Smith, 1995)

–         Beavis and Butt-Head (1993 – Present)

–         The Room (dir. Tommy Wiseau, 2003)

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are the most oddly cast duo for this comedy/drama which desperately wants to be taken seriously but in a funny/unfunny way but doesn’t quite nail either, and thus ending up being a frown-inducing confusion-fest. There are few performances by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck that I’ve disliked, so I’m convinced that they’re not to blame for the awkward, lacklustre energy that Dogma emits. The concept is passable; Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are Loki and Bartleby, two exiled-from-heaven angels destined to live an eternity on Earth, and the introduction is assuring. To an extent, reprising their easily-distracted, obnoxious, smartass characters from Good Will Hunting, we watch the two hang around in an airport. Bartleby laments on how this place where reunited lovers, families and friends rejoice is like a space in time, where for a few brief moments, people care for nothing else but each other as they truly recognise the significance of each other’s homely, reassuring presence. Meanwhile, Loki is off casually converting a nun to denounce her faith and actually enjoy her life. It’s the first of many late-nighties gags where moral and ethical debate could inoffensively be made comedic, whereas now it’s become a more treacherous place to tread. It’s a strong opening that gives the characters some potential; their mission is to make it back into heaven after discovering a loophole that could see them gain entry.

Why Kevin Smith put 'Dogma' in new movie though Weinstein owns rights -  Business Insider
Image Credit: Insider

However, bypassing God and exploiting his mistake would cause everything that ever was to stop existing. Enter Alan Rickman as Metatron, an angel whose mission is to prevent the two exiled angels from succeeding. He goes to an abortion clinic worker named Bethany due to her special Christian heritage and tasks her with a mission, although she’s neither enthused by the responsibility bestowed on her nor God’s involvement, someone who she claims can’t be that just and almighty if he allowed her miscarriage to happen. Then, enter Jay and Silent Bob, who, from what I can gather are like an R-Rated Bill and Ted. I can’t judge the cult-lore of these characters too harshly as this was, in fact, the first film I’ve seen starring the cult-legends. However, I have a pretty solid idea of what they may have been like in ClerksMallrats and their other standalone films. Aside from an sparce handful of somewhat smartly constructed jokes, a superfluous excess of crass humour that constitutes 99% of their punchlines, also constitutes their downfall. Sure, a jab that another guy is gay or that a woman won’t have sex with them is a symptom of being a late 90’s movie, but in Dogma it’s every, other, exhaustive, rinse-and-repeat, line. It’s the type of repetitive dialogue that characters like Beavis and Butthead get away with due to their commitment to stupidity, but in a film that’s unsure whether it’s meant to be wise or hilarious, neither is achieved and it only culminates as being lacklustre and wince-inducing.

Unfortunately, the dialogue is the only thing, until the final twenty minutes of the film, which is relied upon to carry the movie. There are scenes of extensive dialogue to justify and explain the religious themes and archetypal religious characters, but the exposition is just insultingly blatant and spoon-fed. And when the film does attempt to present actions over words, it’s equally as stodgy, but lost without its supportive backbone structure of having somebody literally explain it to you. There’s a scene in a strip club (of course) because Jay has to prove that he isn’t gay (…) which sees Jay and Bob engage in a bidding war against a group of guys to win the Salma Hayek-played stripper over. The sequence is just strange as every time a bid is made and the stripper is swayed towards them, an unusual sound effect plays that suggests that something isn’t right. To heighten the tensity, the shot reversal shows a particular member of the rival group looking furious, concealing his face. The rivalry continues and abruptly ends, the punchline being that Bob has loads of cash and wins Hayek. And then nothing happens. In fact, they become friends with the other group. The guy who looks like he wants to kill them both now doesn’t. The whole sequence stumbles to and end and lands so awkwardly that you actually have to work to figure out what is going on: Is this a joke? Is this a serious scene? Is this important? Is it an excuse to get Salma Hayek naked? Am I over-thinking this? Apparently, probably not, nope, probably yes, and yes. There’s another scene that takes place on a bus near the beginning of the film where Loki shoots and kills a man who is cheating on his wife. We watch the bus screech to a halt and then watch every single passenger get off, before seeing the “punchline”, which is Loki singing. Honestly, the comedic editing in Dogma isn’t dissimilar to scenes in The Room: awkwardly paced, downright confusing and either excessively under-or-over expositional.

A high-calibre cast cannot save Dogma from being unrelentingly tedious and dull. It’s a two-hour fest of characters waiting to be asked something that will allow them to explain their characters in detail for the rest of the film, without actually doing anything. It saves its energy for an anticlimactic twenty-minute showdown, but by then it’s too late to be even slightly redeemable, having already collapsed under its ambitious weight of blending blasphemy with moral righteousness, political comedy with fart jokes. I appreciate that I’m an odd one out given how beloved this film is to its cult fanbase, but it baffles me that Dogma isn’t as divisive as its religion-themed source material.

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