At the noon screening on opening day, when I saw Kevin Smith's new theological farce "Dogma," half the high-school seniors in town had evidently managed to skip 5th and 6th periods to be there first, and they weren't disappointed. With an oeuvre so far of only three films, he's become an icon of the young independent scene. It's ironic, of course, that the formerly independent Miramax, which financed the film but has since been bought by Disney, had to avoid being tarred by the know-nothings and sold the rights to the less sensitive Lions Gate.
All of the above is irrelevant to the film, which is to God and Catholicism what Groucho Marx was to Margaret Dumont. That is, he loved her but used her for nefarious purposes. Smith's story -- he wrote and directed it -- is that two angels, Bartleby and Loki (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), have been banished from heaven to the unending limbo of Wisconsin. But a messenger of the devil makes sure they see a news story about a Cardinal (George Carlin) who by rededicating a church in New Jersey is hoping to make Catholicism more fun, with "The Buddy Christ" replacing the old model on the cross. What B and L get from the story is that if they can enter the rededicated church they will be able to return to heaven. The problem with the plan, though, is that if it works it will prove that God is fallible, thereby putting an instant end to all existence. A tough question.
But don't worry your pretty head over the theological conflicts here. You'll be just fine even if you're Jewish, though at least one hour of the film's running time is concerned with various examinations of the paradox. The reason you won't mind is that whenever things get too, well, theological, along come Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith himself), the two-headed running gag in all of Smith's films, to show us what's really important, namely getting laid.
Let me go back a minute. When God hears about B and L's plan She puts some of Her own people to work at countering it. For instance, Metatron, the Voice of God (Alan Rickman), comes to Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), who works at an abortion clinic in Illinois but retains her faith in the Catholic church, to enlist her as the agent of God, whose job will be to prevent the boys from accomplishing their plan. By a quirk she meets Jay and Silent Bob, who've come to Illinois looking for the place where the filmmaker John Hughes set his 1980s teen films ("Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," etc.). They're outside the clinic because they think it's a good place to meet girls and get laid ("They're loose women, right?"). The Hughes town is mythical but J and SB save Bethany from agents of the devil, and they all set out for New Jersey. Are you with me so far?
At this point the film becomes a road, bus, and train movie as all parties get closer to Red Bank, New Jersey, trying to either a) get through the doors and back into heaven; or b) save all existence by keeping them out. Along the way we meet Salma Hayek, the bar stripper/artistic muse ("Nineteen of the top twenty grossing pictures were mine."), and Rufus (Chris Rock), the Thirteenth Apostle who was written out of the Bible because he's black, and ultimately God Herself (Alanis Morissette).
The trip is wild, and wildly uneven. Smith, who evidently has yet to reconcile his own conflicting beliefs, sometimes lets the film get carried away with theological exegeses; and everybody in the place seems to have his or her own agenda, which the film stops to explain; but still, it all does work out in the end.
"Dogma" is a thrill and a delight, because it joins the current group of iconoclastic films -- "Being John Malkovich," "South Park," "American Beauty" come to mind -- that have broken down the conventions of the movie business with wit and an ironic eye. And, thanks mainly to Jay and Silent Bob, the wit here is delicious. I wasn't a fan of "Clerks," which with the exception of the great sex-in-the-dark-bathroom scene was a bit too thin for my taste. "Chasing Amy" had more to offer, particularly the use of seemingly random conversations about sex, life, and death. For "Dogma," which is a big-budget film, Smith has kept his talent and his ear for good talk, and trusted his actors to do it all justice. They don't let him down.