Decent enough entertainment but it's far from a divine experience.
It's generally accepted that politics and religion are topics best left out of polite conversation, so any film that is grounded in the politics of religion may be facing an uphill struggle for acceptance. If anyone were going to take on this contrary position, of course it'd have to be Kevin Smith. Having been mauled by critics for the relatively vacuous Mallrats, then redeemed in their eyes by Chasing Amy, a film which (most reckoned) managed to combine social commentary and comedy, Smith must have been feeling all clever and ready to stir up some controversy again.
So he wrote a film about two fallen angels trying to exploit a loophole in Christian law to get back into heaven, which will have the unfortunate side effect of destroying the world. I believe this is known as a Star Trek paradox in the film industry. The logic is perhaps worth commenting on. The angels, Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon) were cast out from heaven for eternity after Bartleby persuades Loki, the angel of death, that perhaps all this righteous slaying of the infidels in Sodom and the like may not be the best idea, which peeved God. They find out of a ceremony involving a New Jersey church celebrating it centenary, which according to religious law will absolve anyone of their sins. Their plan: - get absolved, remove their wings, hence becoming human, get killed as innocents and be admitted back into heaven. However, as God has declared that they can never be allowed back, this creates a paradox according to the self-imposed laws of the universe and so creation explodes. Yes, it's silly, but probably no sillier than other arguments used to disprove God's infallibility. A common one being to ask God to create a rock that he/she/it cannot lift. If God were the all-powerful almighty, it would be impossible not to be able to lift it. Yet if God were the all-powerful creator, it would be impossible not to be able to create it. Hence a paradox, hence God cannot exist. Very logical, which is even more powerful than statistics at proving anything.
This bleating aside, the heavenly forces have decided to stop Loki and Bartleby. The Metatron (an on-form-as-ever Alan Rickman), the voice of God, is sent to convince Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) to take up a crusade against them. She happens to be the great-great-great-(lather, rinse and repeat)-great grand niece of Jesus. Dogma is one of the very few films which ask you to suspend your beliefs as well as your disbelief. Thankfully she need not take on this onerous task by herself, she has two prophets to assist her. Unfortunately these turn out to be Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith), who by this point in Smith's series you ought to be familiar with. Still, they prove to be able to handily dispose of the roller-blading goons sent to kill her by Azrael (Jason Lee), a demon wanting to escape from hell by vanquishing it from existence. As they travel on a mission to New Jersey to find the errant angels and stop them they are joined by the 13th Apostle, Rufus (Chris Rock, for the most part reining in his squeaky vocal tendencies), who harbours a grudge at being left out of the bible. We soon run into the muse, Serendipity (Salma Hayek) whose main grudge is about God being described as male in the bible when 'it' takes the form of a woman.
You may be wondering why God doesn't stop all this nonsense with her almighty power. Unfortunately she has gone AWOL, with the hosts of heaven being unable to locate her. She often takes little sabbaticals in the form of a human, however this time she has been waylaid by Azrael, whose aforementioned goons deliver a sound beating. With her human form stuck on a life support machine, trapping her incapacitated on Earth, she is powerless to stop this.
Loki thinks a good way to be welcomed on their return to heaven is to go on a good-old fashioned judgement spree. He takes out adulterers, false idol worshippers and deceivers with semi-automatic weaponry, the modern day replacement for a fiery sword. Azrael devotes his time to stopping Bethany and co. from reaching New Jersey and the two errant angels. He captures them, but of course is killed by them. The god squad travel onward to Jersey for a final showdown, where Bartleby has flipped out and is being somewhat overzealous with the judging. While Jay, Rufus and Serendipity distract the rampaging angel, Bethany figures out a way to save God, who then fixes up everything for a literal deus ex machina ending.
And that's really it in terms of plot. It can seem complicated during the film due to the litany of religious claptrap associated with it, but it reduces to some people trying to do something that another group doesn't want, so one group tries to stop the other. The various heavenly agents are taken from a mix of different religions, with many of them (Loki, the muses, Bartleby) never appear in Christian texts at all. I'll assume this is Smith's way of commenting on the many religions / one God dichotomy which is prevalent in western religion, but as it's never really expanded on it comes across as just being a random selection of the characters Smith thought had the coolest names.
The controversy the film provoked seems entirely unwarranted. There's not a single idea in here that hasn't been voiced before, and a great many things that would seem to court it have already been accepted by scholars. Even the bible itself admits there were more than twelve apostles, in Paul's letter to the Romans. That the bible was written by humans who may skew thing for there own ends is never in doubt, a long tradition that carries on to the journalists of today. The idea of God being seen to be male or female always seemed silly, if there is a being of unimaginable power it seems naive to assume we could imagine what form it would take.
As a religious commentary then, the film says little that hasn't been thought of before. Any furore seems misplaced, especially given the ending screams out a hugely Christian message; believe in God and everything will be fine. If that aspect of the film is weak, then it's vital that the comedy element is strong enough to carry it. Unfortunately it doesn't; it simply isn't very funny. There are some good moments, largely provided by Rickman's excellent performance. Damon has a bit of fun with his role, and Affleck provides a strong performance especially towards the end. The other principles are largely lifeless, notable exceptions as ever are Jason Mewes and Smith himself. It's unfortunate that the characters that are most likeable and the easiest to sympathise with are ultimately the shallowest characters Smith has written (or in Mewes' case, copied directly to screen). They as ever provide the most memorable moments in Smith's work, providing a welcome relief from the obsession on clever sentence structure and excessive vernacular, which is often used to try to make weak and unfunny joke try to seem clever and hilarious. Still, Smith seems to have based a career on this, and a successful one, so who am I to argue?
This is not an anti-religion film, in fact it's resolutely pro-religion. The point of the film, if any, seems to be that the notion of God itself is a positive one, but the structure humanity builds around it is too rigid and in many cases corrupt. This happens to be pretty much how I felt about the topic going in. Whether or not the performances and the scripting in this movie would be enough to convince you if you felt otherwise is open to debate, although I'd say it wouldn't. The arguments are never made coherent enough as it tries a scattergun approach to more areas of religion than in has time to cover in any depth, ultimately leaving it a broad but shallow affair. It still remains interesting enough to be watchable, especially for fans of Smith's work, but for the rest of us it remains a less than rapturous experience.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Ben Affleck (Bartleby)
Matt Damon (Loki)
Alan Rickman (Metatron)
Salma Hayek (Serendipity)
Chris Rock (Rufus)
Jason Lee (Azrael)
Jason Mewes (Jay)
Kevin Smith (Silent Bob)