In search of the Garden State: Kevin Smith’s Dogma

Dogma questions faith in a very different way from Luc Besson’s The Messenger. Instead of posing a series of questions about the rationale behind religion, it conceals a series of philosophic arguments behind a thick veneer of sarcasm, wit and irony. Peel back all the popular culture, the cult of celebrity, and the special effects and one is left with some simple questions about the “opiate of the masses.”

To do so, however, would be unfair to both Kevin Smith and the entire cast of Dogma. Smith’s first movie, Clerks, was groundbreaking, yet both Mallrats and Chasing Amy failed to garner much critical (or popular) support. Dogma aims to reverse all of this, combining the low and highbrow humor of Clerks with (presumably) the thought-provoking aspect of Chasing Amy.

Working in Smith’s favor is the incredible casting, ranging from George Carlin as a Catholic Cardinal to Alanis Morissette as God. And, yes, all the crew from Clerks (well, the male members, that is) are back in fine form: Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself) return to their well-worn positions, with Smith providing key lines at a few choice moments.

From the opening shots of a homeless man beaten to near-death, one can tell the movie is going to tread harshly on hallowed ground. We are introduced next to the two principal characters, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, as Loki and Bartleby, two exiled angels forced to wander around in Wisconsin for eternity. The two engage in witty banter at the local airport until Affleck (after all, the movie revels in pop culture enough that referring to Affleck as Bartleby seems absurd) reveals that someone has discovered a loophole in God’s plans, conveniently revealed in a newspaper clipping mailed to the estranged angel.

According to Catholic dogma (yes, we have a title), whoever passes through the arch of a hundred-year old church in New Jersey will be absolved of all sins. Affleck explains that all the couple has to do to return to paradise is to rip off their wings (transforming them into humans in the process) and pass through the arch before being killed.

Since Affleck and Damon are no strangers to bloodshed, they figure they can kill enough people before they pass through the doorway to ensure police retaliation upon their emergence. Killed by gunfire, the sinless two would immediately return to heaven, their longed-for home. The bloodthirsty angels then begin their trip to New Jersey, home of Jay and Silent Bob.

Unfortunately, the powers in heaven realize that such an occurrence would violate the law of the universe, namely, that an omnipotent God cannot have her own laws broken. To do so would, in fact, negate existence. God would normally, of course, step in and resolve the situation, except that she has apparently stepped out for a bit to enjoy a game of skee-ball. While God is in absentia, her two auxiliary angels can do almost whatever they like.

Metatron, ably played by Alan Rickman in a perversion of his famous Die Hard role, is sent down to fix the situation. As God’s voice the angel who translates Morissette’s heart-shattering vocals into more palpable English, he must find a person to stop the two angels. For this task, he chooses Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), who is later revealed to be a long-connected descendant of Jesus (through his Bible-omitted brothers and sisters). Having had an unsuccessful abortion at an early age, she has renounced God (despite still going to church every week) and thus has several crises of faith along the way.

Bethany teams up with Jay and Silent Bob to return to their native land of New Jersey and save the universe at the same time. Along the way, she runs into Rufus (Chris Rock), the 13th apostle, who reveals many points of interest that challenge the established church doctrine by claiming that Jesus was, in fact, black. Rock decides to help the troubled threesome to locate and eliminate the two wandering angels.

Along the way, the group encounters a fecal monstrosity, a seductive muse (played by Salma Hayek much more ably than her last objectifying role in Wild Wild West) and a megalomaniacal hell-fearing former muse played by Jason Lee (Brodie in Mallrats). True, the theological implications of taking Milton’s ball, running the length of the field and spiking it in the endzone are deranged at best. Yet Smith never wanders too far from the point of the movie, which is not a treatise on the war between heaven and hell.

Instead, the movie contests notions of organized religion in a thoughtful and nuanced manner. Damon and Affleck seek to perform acts of “justice” before they become human, and thus engage in a killing spree designed to eliminate all who worship false idols, engage in idolatry or any other of the “major sins.” They don’t realize that they’re in the wrong until they’ve already gone too far.

Rather than spoil the ending (which is never certain until the conclusion) I’ll hold off and simply say that Smith doesn’t disappoint. There is a pivotal moment at which Affleck kicks pretty-boy Damon’s ass, which is not to be missed. And the numerous other small cameos by Janeane Garofalo, Jeff Anderson (Randall in Clerks) and Brian O’Halloran (Dante in Clerks) are all revealing. But the real pleasure of this film is the oft-spoken questioning of faith that repeatedly comes up. Are we supposed to believe in Mother Church without question? Is free choice necessarily evil? Should we, as Rock suggests, abandon “belief” but embrace “ideas?”

This is not to suggest the movie is too deep to be funny. It’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen since Clerks. The jokes are also subtler than the recent rash of There’s Something About Mary toilet jokes, although Smith certainly isn’t above stooping just a bit. The pop culture sensibility that pervades the film elevates it above simple sophomoric humor, such as when Silent Bob, in one of his few lines, quotes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Viewing the movie once only makes one want to return to catch everything you missed the first time around.

Dogma is then a celebration of both inspired film-making and thoughtful religious commentary. Protesting films such as this is both immature and inappropriate at a moment when Pokemon: The First Movie draws hordes of youngsters to revel in its strange mythology. Every god-fearing or denying person has something to gain from Dogma, if only a greater respect for Smith’s work.