Kevin Smith likes to pretend he's just a regular guy from New Jersey. He likes the role so much that he's embodied it on-screen, as Silent Bob, in every film he's made: Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy. But it takes a highly irregular guy to make a film, lay bare the method behind it and suggest an appropriate standard of judgment, all at once, as Smith does at the beginning of Dogma.
Here is George Carlin (a hero to many regular guys from New Jersey), impersonating a prince of the church named Cardinal Glick. As the film starts, the cardinal is launching a new get-'em-back-in-the-pews initiative for today's American Catholics: the "Catholicism WOW" marketing campaign. The method, simply put, is to translate the message of the church into the words and images people already use. That's what artists within the church have always done--think of the different costumes, settings and even physiognomies they've given the Holy Family, across the centuries and continents--and that's also what Smith does in Dogma.
As for the critical standard, it's set through the bad example of Cardinal Glick, whose Catholicism WOW campaign retires the gloomy old image of the crucifix. In its place, Glick puts an image that he imagines will be more attractive to the public: the Buddy Christ, a grinning, blue-eyed surfer Jesus who winks broadly and gives you the thumbs-up. To Smith, this isn't a vernacular translation of the Gospel. It's corn, which insults Jesus and pop culture alike.
Dogma conveys the message of the church in the vernacular and gets its terms right. God's messenger (Alan Rickman) resembles a middle-aged British rock star who's a recovering alcoholic. The spawn of hell are teenage roller-hockey players with dim, glue-freak eyes. Other supernatural figures include a righteously pissed-off apostle who behaves like a stand-up comic (Chris Rock) and an immortal topless dancer (Salma Hayek) who seems to have wandered in from Christianity's Hellenistic background.
These figures begin to busy themselves in and about New Jersey because of the activities of a pair of fallen angels--Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. (How's that for having pop-culture perfect pitch?) Banished for all eternity to Wisconsin, the angels ache to return home and think they've found a way to do so, through a loophole in divine law that was carelessly opened by Cardinal Glick. Should they exercise the loophole, though, God's word will be made self-contradictory, and the universe will end. Someone must stop them--and the seemingly unlikely instrument chosen for the task is Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a divorced, embittered yet stubbornly faithful Catholic in McHenry, Illinois, who works in an abortion clinic.
Some Catholics have protested against Dogma--pre-emptively, without bothering to see the movie--on the grounds that a film that makes a heroine of such a character must be meant as an insult to the faith. They might as well say Augustine disqualified himself from becoming a father of the church by writing the Confessions. All sorts of colorful people make their way into sacred history. I note, for the record, that Dogma affirms the divinity and unique salvific mission of Jesus, the efficacy of the sacraments in and of themselves and the Magisterium. The movie is therefore far more acceptable to Catholics than it is to Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Sikhs, Wiccans, animists of all nations and secular humanists.
As a member of one of the latter groups, I had my doctrinal disagreements with Dogma. I also had a very good time watching the film. Concede Smith his two main notions--that God alone has the right to judge human beings, and that God has a sense of humor--and you will probably find Dogma howlingly funny, thoroughly imaginative and (in the end) surprisingly sweet. The offense that the Jersey-centric Smith ignorantly gives to the State of Wisconsin, I leave to a future column, on great movies of the Midwest.