Dogma - rated - TEPID

Not Quite Infallible - but not Papal Bull Either

It helps if you're Catholic, watching this film. You can get all the technical jokes, and there are a lot of them. But it's not essential - although I'm not sure the film would mean a thing to anyone who was completely bereft of religious instruction.

I understand that the director, Kevin Smith (Clerks (1994), Mall Rats (1995), Chasing Amy (1997)), had written this script several years ago and had been playing with it, intending to give it to someone else to direct. In the end he directed it himself, which is a pity in some ways and a blessing in others. It's a blessing, in that no one writes quite like Kevin Smith, and he's just the director to make the most of his silliness. However, it's also - paradoxically - a shame that the film was not directed by someone with a bit more distance from the script.

The film is obviously a labour of love for Smith, who (like me) is a practising Catholic. Dogma is bulging with arcane details of Catholic theology and references to rather obscure rituals - and Smith seems to just love all that stuff, even as he's poking fun at it. But his religion is important to him on a day-today basis, and the problem with the film is that all the time he seems to be trying to convince us that you can be hip, aware, ironic AND Catholic all at once. In doing this he ends up being just a bit too preachy.

However, for me, that didn't kill the humour of the film. It is very funny indeed, from the first scenes of the banished angels (Matt Damon & Ben Affleck - who else?) who have been cast out of heaven and condemned to life in... Wisconsin. Now, I just happen to know a bit about Wisconsin (including the fact that they are known as "cheese-heads" in some quarters). If you know that, then the first few scenes will have you in stitches. There's also an exchange between the angels and a nun in a bus station which is hilarious and very clever. Oh, and God is pretty funny too.

On balance, Dogma stretches a good joke just a bit too far. The film seems long, and Smith's relatively static directorial style doesn't help it seem any shorter. He has made quite an effort to move the action to the outside (there are even some stunt action scenes) and to move the camera itself more than he usually does. He has assembled an interesting and talented cast (including Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock, and Alan Rickman as an archangel). But some of these characters are not there for their contribution to the plot or the theme of the film - they just seem to be there for the hell of it (or, in the case of Salma Hayek, the heaven of it). And the final jokes don't quite come off as Smith goes all too sentimental. He needed a bit more of a kick in the final scenes so as to leave us with more of an impression of wit than of sincerity. But you gotta like a guy for trying.