As it turns out, so are we. Strutting to a spiritually snappy groove not observed in mainstream American cinema since Marty Feldman and Andy Kaufman pranced through In God We Trust eons ago -- and weaving clever threads of supernatural intervention throughout -- Smith has fashioned a complex, contemporary Bible epic on his own terms. By turns crafty and clunky, pious and profane, it's clearly a labor of love.
Bethany, a disillusioned lapsed Catholic who works in a small-town Illinois abortion clinic, is visited by Metatron (Alan Rickman), a seraphim who, as the voice of God, sends her on a quest to prevent the unmaking of the universe. The gist: Former angel of death Loki (Matt Damon) and renegade angel Bartleby (Ben Affleck) have been condemned for all eternity to Wisconsin. Understandably peeved by this fate, they have concocted a plan to re-enter Heaven through a soul-cleansing portal located in a revisionist cathedral in New Jersey, helmed by brash showman Cardinal Glick (George Carlin). If they succeed, however, they'll prove God fallible, and all of creation will disintegrate.
After being attacked by a trio of Rollerblading punk demons under the command of devil Azrael (Jason Lee), Bethany is attended on her odyssey of faith by "prophets" Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (director Smith). En route to Red Bank, the pilgrims join forces with 13th apostle Rufus (Chris Rock), who was edited out of the Bible by racist patriarchs, and muse Serendipity (Salma Hayek), who inspired 19 of the 20 top-grossing movies of all time but has of late been slumming in a strip bar.
The adventure is a weird, sarcastic, extraordinarily chatty one; Smith has loaded his script to the bursting with generational in-jokes, spiritual flights of fancy, freeform metaphysical manipulation and, of course, giddy onslaughts of his trademark rude banter. A significant figure in the comic industry (he's a writer and purveyor of the pulpy periodicals), Smith has thus far strived to bridge the gap between smart comics and smart-ass movies (especially in the juvenile Mallrats and the heavy-handed Chasing Amy). With his fourth feature, that bridge is nigh complete, and the characters dramatically dodge and weave through the narrative as in a comic book come to life. It's a unique approach, a specific shade of heightened reality.
One quirk that can be distracting, however, is Smith's penchant for summoning up pop-culture icons within the thick soup of dialogue. He astutely zeroes in on the confusion of being screwed over by director John Hughes (The Breakfast Club and, more recently, an avalanche of lucrative tripe), but he also litters his dialogue with nods many may not find familiar or particularly funny. (His own generation will probably scream.) The Hughes point is well taken (although, responding to allegations that he abandoned the audience who built his career, the '80s zeitgeist maverick claimed it was they who abandoned him). To his credit, Smith has already proved himself a major voice within a thoughtful new movement, only a few years under way. It will be engaging to witness where his fruitful imagination takes him next.
Even though the direction of Dogma is competent (and the budget clearly added opportunities to stretch), it must be noted that Smith is a gifted writer who is still sussing out the directing thing. This is his sharpest, most fully realized feature since his audacious debut with Clerks five years ago, but visually dazzling it rarely is. Like Clerks, this movie is rife with accelerated who's-on-first? verbosity and subtle, shrewdly telegraphed relationship tics. But because Clerks was created on such a humble scale, its wit and framing seemed effortless. Here, as he shoulders an A-list cast, studio backing and even special effects, Smith's strain sometimes shows (and -- although it was wise to lose the gang fight and Fat Albert bits -- some further editing wouldn't have hurt). The concepts he's juggling are expressed too often in words, too rarely (excepting a fecal demon) in visual metaphor. But that makes it no less laudable to haul such a unique effort through the trenches.
Everyone gets to party with their roles, which is refreshing. The celestial beings seem to have the most fun, such as when Damon reignites his brimstone and indulges himself in holy killing sprees or Rock throws down his take on the Gnostic Gospels in a burger joint. Affleck never looks quite sure of himself until he loses his patience and seeks bloody vengeance, but his final confrontation is gripping. Hayek and Lee make splendid representatives of inspiration and evil, respectively. Rickman looks disturbingly pasty and doughy here, but his suave, commanding voice gives the film a gravity it would otherwise lack. (In one of the sweeter scenes, Fiorentino complains that she cannot bear her burden. "That's what Jesus said," he evenly responds.) They've got some rock-singer chick playing God, too, but should have held out for Emma Thompson as originally planned.
The mortals are equally game for the ride. Carlin is polished and perfect as the inflated Cardinal Glick. (Who else could sell a modern-day crusade called Catholicism -- Wow!?) Fiorentino does fine work balancing the insanity of her quest with a lingering sense of doubt. Best of all, Smith and Mewes finally get to stretch out their ongoing shtick beyond the limited appearances of Smith's previous movies. Smith's silent comedy is a smart arrangement for the director, but the revelation here is Mewes, who blurts out his rude tirades like an NC-17 Spicoli. There is a strong element of classic fool to Jay, and Smith has written his friend some beautifully raunchy wisdom to spew.
All in all, Dogma earns a lot of points for sheer invention, loses a couple for occasional lapses in execution and comes out on top for wiggling spasmodically on ideological turf where most creators dare not go. In this case, crude, piecemeal courage is certainly better than none at all.
Opens Nov. 12.