Kevin Smith is a conundrum of a filmmaker: he's a writer with brilliant, clever ideas who can't set up a simple shot to save his life. It was fine back when Smith was making low-budget films like Clerks
and Chasing Amy
, both of which had an amiable, grungy feel to them, but now that he's a rising director who's attracting top talent and tackling bigger themes, it might behoove him to polish his filmmaking. That's the main problem with Dogma
--it's an ambitious, funny, aggressively intelligent film about modern-day religion, but while Smith's writing has matured significantly (anyone who thinks he's not topnotch should take a look at Chasing Amy
), his direction hasn't. It's too bad, because Dogma
is ripe for near-classic status in its theological satire, which is hardly as blasphemous as the protests that greeted the movie would lead you to believe.
Two banished angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) have discovered a loophole that would allow them back into heaven; problem is, they'd destroy civilization in the process by proving God fallible. It's up to Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a lapsed Catholic who works in an abortion clinic, to save the day, with some help from two so-called prophets (Smith and Jason Mewes, as their perennial characters Jay and Silent Bob), the heretofore unknown 13th apostle (Chris Rock), and a sexy, heavenly muse (the sublime Salma Hayek, who almost single-handedly steals the film). In some ways Dogma is a shaggy dog of a road movie--which hits a comic peak when Affleck and Fiorentino banter drunkenly on a train to New Jersey, not realizing they're mortal enemies--and segues into a comedy-action flick as the vengeful angels (who have a taste for blood) try to make their way into heaven. Smith's cast is exceptional--with Fiorentino lending a sardonic gravity to the proceedings, and Jason Lee smirking evilly as the horned devil Azrael--and the film shuffles good-naturedly to its climax (featuring Alanis Morissette as a beatifically silent God), but it just looks so unrelentingly... subpar. Credit Smith with being a daring writer but a less-than-stellar director. --Mark Englehart