Dogma

Dogma (1999)

Dir. Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock

 

Dogma was the most recently released film in Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse when my friends and I discovered the director. Coming on the heels of the critical success of Chasing Amy, Dogma represents a huge step forward for Smith and his brand of comedy. It is his first foray into bigger budget filmmaking, and it also shifts the focus largely away from the established world of his first three films, only tangentially tying back into them through the presence of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), this time cast as unlikely prophets. However, Dogma also represents a return to his past for Smith, as he wrote a draft of the screenplay before he filmed his debut Clerks, and only returned to the passion project when he felt that he had garnered enough technical know-how and industry clout to produce the film with the proper budget and production value. The final result is something of a mixed bag, not totally fitting in with Smith’s brand of lo-fi humor but also not divorcing itself enough from that milieu to be the successful action-comedy film that it wants to be. When reflected on in relation to the rest of Smith’s filmography, particularly his first five features and Clerks II, the movies that make up the accepted View Askewniverse, Dogma feels like an aborted foray down an unfamiliar, and possibly wrong, path.

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Dogma opens with fallen angels Bartleby (Affleck) and Loki (Damon) plotting a way to return to their home in Heaven, which they may have discovered after they are tipped off to the planned rededication of a New Jersey church by Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) as part of his new, image-conscious marketing campaign for the Catholic Church, Catholicism Wow! Through a loophole in Catholic dogma, the angels can enter the church in Red Bank, New Jersey on the day of its rededication and be forgiven of their sins, allowing them to re-enter Heaven, thus proving God fallible, and rending the fabric of the Universe and all existence therein. In order to prevent this cataclysm, Heavenly forces recruit Bethany (Fiorentino), a reluctant Catholic who works at an abortion clinic, to travel to New Jersey and stop the angels from reentering the church. Assisting Bethany in her journey are two prophets, the aforementioned Jay and Silent Bob, who serve as her guides from Illinois to their native Jersey, Rufus (Rock), the 13th apostle who was written out of the Bible, and who reveals to Bethany her true identity as a descendant of Jesus Christ’s family lineage, and several other Spiritual entities. They’re opposed by the demon Azrael (Jason Lee) and his trio of devilish hockey playing lackeys, who have secretly been guiding Bartleby and Loki all along for their own nefarious purposes. When all of the disparate parties arrive in Red Bank, a scene unfolds not unlike Armageddon and as the last scion of Christ, Bethany is the only one who has the power to save the Universe.

If the movie sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. As I mentioned, it was far and away the biggest project that Smith had tackled to that point in his career, with a larger cast, longer runtime, more locations, and more indirect approach to comedy than anything that had preceded it. However, rather than feeling like a culmination of everything that Smith had learned while working on his first three features, Dogma often feels like a rejection of those lessons. Smith has jettisoned his penchant for smaller indies in favor of action/comedy bombast, and the transition isn’t exactly smooth. Despite the personal nature of the project, and its lengthy gestation period, Dogma feels somewhat thrown together. It lacks the passion exhibited by the guerrilla filmmaking of Clerks and it doesn’t continue an exploration of the kinds of personal, emotional territory that Smith began to traverse with Chasing Amy. While that film found Smith beginning to peak as a screenwriter, with Dogma, he seems to have bitten off more than he can chew. There are too many characters involved in the film for the audience to become personally invested in any of them, and Smith doesn’t always do a great job of juggling the film’s multiple storylines and locations. Still though, I don’t think that tightening up the narrative would have improved Dogma, as it went through at least eight different variations before Smith settled on the final screenplay. The audacious scope of the film is part of its appeal, and it’s interesting to see the results of Smith’s first attempt to break out from his established niche. The fix for this film might have been in the works all along, however, as Smith reportedly shopped the film to other directors, including Robert Rodriguez, who turned it down citing Smith’s personal connection to the project as a reservation. I would be very interested in seeing what he would have done with this script, coming off of the schlocky, horror-action hybrid From Dusk Til Dawn.

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As intriguing as the prospect of a director slightly more suited to delivering on the promise of Dogma’s complex narrative and genre hybridity, I don’t know that it would have made up for some of the other major flaws that the film has. Overall, my biggest gripe with Dogma is that its cast is star-studded, but the big names are rarely used to their full potential. It may be the fault of the material that they were given to work with, but very few members of the cast are doing anything close to their best work in Dogma. Fiorentino is solid as the doubting, searching Bethany, but her performance isn’t memorable or dynamic. She gets a few scenes that indicate some depth as an actor, but overall her emotional and psychological journey are overshadowed by the mugging and zaniness that surround her character. Rock’s character, Rufus, is underdeveloped and doesn’t rise much above the level of a token black character, and his performance carries about as much enthusiasm as you might expect from the last sketch of the night on an episode of SNL. Rock isn’t the greatest traditional actor, but he is a gifted comedian, and it’s disappointing to see him fall as flat as he does delivering Smith’s dialogue. Selma Hayek appears half way through the film as a muse, Serendipity, whose role is to help provide Bethany with important information about her true identity, but again, she falls victim to underdevelopment. Her character is introduced in a strip club, and she’s largely used as eye candy throughout her brief appearances in the film. Mewes and Smith have a bigger part to play in this film than in the earlier View Askewniverse movies, but they don’t really bring anything new to their trademark roles.

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There are a few bright spots from a performance perspective. Alan Rickman is predictably great as the Metatron, God’s angelic messenger. His trademark sullen expression and exasperation are on full display as a condescending angel forced to deal with inferior humans. He brings a natural grace and poise to his performance that seems fitting for an angel. Conversely, Jason Lee is perfectly smarmy and calculating as the film’s primary villain, Azrael, a demon escaped from Hell with a penchant for central air and seer sucker suits. Lee again shows his ability to master Smith’s dialogue, and his performance as Azrael is my favorite in the film. He plays Azrael as sinister, but also charming, providing a much more nuanced character than do some of his more accomplished counterparts. This is one of the first films that I can remember seeing Lee in that really indicated he was able to craft a character, and that he would have a future as a mainstream actor outside of his collaborations with Smith. George Carlin’s Cardinal Glick is one of the film’s funniest characters, and even though Carlin isn’t stepping far afield from his stand-up routine, I could have used more of his character. Unfortunately, the most interesting characters in the film, including Azrael who should definitely be a more major presence, cede a great deal of screen time to the lesser developed and less dynamic characters. This imbalance is largely what I was referring to earlier when I mentioned that Smith has trouble juggling the film’s multiple storylines.

Affleck and Damon are enjoyable and multifaceted in their performances as the film’s main antagonists, but they’re both asked to do too much in carrying a film that just isn’t that good. I like Affleck a good deal in most of his performances, and he is pretty good here as Bartleby. Initially, Bartleby is the more level headed of the pair, attempting to reign in Loki’s murderous tendencies and keep him focuses on their mission. By film’s end though, the angels have switched moral positions, and Bartleby becomes obsessed with doling out lethal justice to sinning humans. Affleck handles this transition well, and his Bartleby is actually fearsome in the film’s climax, descending from the sky in golden armor, plucking up frightened humans and casually tossing them earthbound to an explosive and bloody end. Affleck had developed an edge to his performance style by this time, but unfortunately, Damon is less adept in the scenes that require him to play dark and villainous. Damon’s smirking visage is appropriate for Loki’s mischievous, trickster qualities, but when he actually follows through on the threats of his violence, the result is shocking but not quite believable. Still, the two have an obvious and natural chemistry, and their overall charm and ability to riff off of one another is a source of much of the film’s comedy.

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Unfortunately, outside of the relationship between Bartleby and Loki, and a few other standout instances that hit the nail on the head in their humorous critique of religion, Dogma just isn’t a particularly funny movie. Despite the assemblage of talent, Smith’s script doesn’t deliver on the comedy end. He attempts to balance high-minded satire with his standard verbose, crass dialogical humor and situational comedy. The results are disastrous, with the film’s satirical elements often feeling over-serious and obvious, and its gross out comedy descending to the levels of actual toilet humor and simply missing the mark. The film suffers from an overreliance on dick and fart jokes, and Mewes is too heavily featured for the first time in the View Askewniverse. I don’t think that my opinions on Dogma’s humor are the results of my maturity since first enjoying it, because I don’t remember ever thinking that the movie was particularly funny, as I did and do about Smith’s other 1990s movies. What has changed is my inability to excuse the movie for not being as funny as it could be, simply because watching Dogma as an adult it isn’t nearly as insightful, profound, or sharply satirical as I thought that it was when I was younger. Smith would later prove himself capable of creating a darkly effective satire in Red State, but Dogma is clearly the work of a younger and less experienced filmmaker.

On the whole, I was disappointed that I didn’t find more to like about Dogma on this rewatch. It’s probably pretty obvious that it was never among my very favorite Smith movies, but I did like it a good bit when I was younger. It still walks a fine line between being critical and reverent of organized religion, and Catholicism, in particular, but as I’ve matured in my own opinions about religion, the film’s tone doesn’t work as well for me as it once did. The film does have its bright spots, but Smith wastes the assembled talent of the cast, and doesn’t have the wherewithal to properly helm a narrative of the scope of Dogma. It isn’t a bad movie, per se, but it’s one that I think might have benefitted from a bit more collaboration and editorial guidance. Though I’ve seen nearly all of Smith’s films, Dogma was really where I stopped being a true fan of the director, and while it used to be in the rotation with relative frequency, I never had the affinity for it that I held for Smith’s first three features. Unfortunately, Dogma’s flaws have only become more apparent with time, and it will likely be a good while before I decide to revisit it, if I do at all.

The Departed

The Departed (2006)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Written by: William Monahan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen

 

This will likely be an unpopular opinion, but The Departed is lesser Scorsese. At the time of its release, the film was seen as a return to form for the auteur, who had been working away from the crime genre for the most part, spending much of the late 1990s and early 2000s making historical epics and biopics. The film won four Academy Awards, including a Best Director award, Scorsese’s first, and a Best Picture award. At the time of its release, I was as on board as anyone else with the opinion that The Departed is, in fact, a great movie, and that it was justified in being the film that finally brought home a much coveted Oscar for the master, Scorsese. I saw the film at least twice in the theater, and purchased it on DVD as soon as it was released. In the fall of 2006 and into 2007, The Departed was my favorite film. It distilled Scorsese’s directorial trademarks into easily identifiable cues, it featured a talented and broad cast, and it certainly did feel like a return to form for the filmmaker who had been making much less intense, more personal projects. However, with over ten years to reflect back on the film, not only does The Departed feel somewhat less essential than it did back then, it doesn’t even strike me as a particularly good film. I don’t hate The Departed, but the film has a myriad of problems that keep it from being a regular in my viewing rotation, despite my initial fondness for it upon its release.

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An adaptation of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, The Departed is an elaborate game of cat and mouse, with both the police and the criminals inserting moles into each other’s organizations. The film shows us that Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson) has been grooming Colin Sullivan (Damon) since childhood to infiltrate the Massachusetts State Police as a mole. Eventually Sullivan works his way into the Special Investigations Unit, specifically tasked with bringing down Costello and his crime syndicate. At the same time, the SIU has groomed their own mole, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio), a cadet in the state police academy, to go undercover inside the Costello organization to aid in their investigation. The two men proceed down parallel paths of deceit and double cross until they eventually become aware of the existence of the other. Sullivan and Costigan attempt to find out each other’s identity, while also maintaining the tenuous balance required to protect their own cover. Eventually, the ruse begins to unravel as other members of Costello’s crew are revealed to be informants, and Costello himself admits to being an FBI informant for years. The layers of deceit are thick, and, ultimately, neither Costigan nor Sullivan is able to reconcile his duplicitous nature.

That seems like an overly simple plot summary for a film that features as many plot twists and turns as The Departed, but I feel that much of the film’s complexity is actually facile. The Departed features many of the hallmarks of Scorsese’s cinematic output, but it feels more like a paint-by-numbers than a fully fleshed out project. The film utilizes Scorsese’s trademark soundtracking, and his memorable insertion of classic rock songs into key moments in the film, but for the first time, the trick feels gimmicky. It’s all style over substance, with its flashy patina masking the fact that its narrative is actually significantly less complex than it appears. While the film that Scorsese is adapting, Infernal Affairs, is a taught, grimy crime thriller, The Departed is an overly-serious, bloated piece of work. The film lacks the panache and the humor of Scorsese’s earlier crime films such as Goodfellas, and is a worse film for it. The Departed proceeds with an air of self-importance that it never really earns, providing solid entertainment, but striving through heavy-handed symbolism at a moralism that never really feels fleshed out. The film’s denouement attempts to bring all the pieces of its sprawling narrative back together, but it does so in a way that leaves me feeling unsatisfied. The characters find their resolutions too easily and conveniently, if not often too peacefully, with the film too readily insisting on a neat conclusion in a world that’s been established to exist in moral grey areas. Rather than untying the Gordian knot that its narrative has attempted to tie, The Departed’s final act opts to hack it to pieces with the blade of coincidence and deus ex machina. Its closing shot is almost inexcusably heavy-handed, spoon feeding the audience the symbolic import of its image.

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That isn’t to say that The Departed doesn’t have its redeeming qualities. It does have some elements of genuine intrigue. The film often harkens back to Scorsese’s explosively violent work of the 1990s, with Costigan in particular showing himself to be an able vehicle of violent retribution. The scenes in which he is easing into his role as a soldier in Costello’s organization are some of the film’s most interesting, because they leave a question as to how much of the violence is Costigan playing out a role and how much of it stem from his latent destructive urges. DiCaprio plays this role well, and this seems to be one of the first indications that he would go on to become more than just a teen heartthrob. His Costigan is paranoid, conflicted, and violent, attempting to stay one step ahead of both Costello and Sullivan, while maintaining his own sanity in the face of the pressures of living a double life. DiCaprio plays his role with an appropriately desperate edge, a manic energy pervading his performance that will become familiar in his performances over the next decade. He doesn’t reach the heights of performance that he did in his earlier pairing with Scorsese, The Aviator, but DiCaprio is one of the lone bright spots in the film from a performance standpoint. Perhaps DiCaprio stands out so much because his counterpart in the film, Damon, seems to be phoning in his performance. He doesn’t seem to bring any of the psychological or emotional complexity to his role that DiCaprio does, and he relies on his Boston accent to do much of the work in his performance. Damon is solid, but he doesn’t shine.

Nicholson is a disappointment, as well. Solidly into his hammy later career, Nicholson’s Costello is a stereotype of a gangster. He seethes cruelty and anger, but rarely steps outside of this emotional register. In a film where the arch criminal is revealed to be an FBI informant, Nicholson doesn’t bring any moral ambiguity or nuance to the character. It isn’t that the performance is poor, but with a character as dynamic as Costello, Nicholson should be able to do more. Costello seems more sleazy pervert than criminal mastermind, and his decision to become a rat doesn’t seem to wear on him psychologically in any way. He’s simply acting out of self-preservation, and any larger examination of the character’s psyche is left out. This kind of psychological short-shrifting is fine for a minor or even a supporting character, but when you’re trying to make the type of prestige film that The Departed badly wants to be, a bit more probing into the personal life and mind of one of your three principles is required. I’m ok with a performance strictly being for comedic effect or shock value, and I think that Mark Wahlberg’s bombastic Sgt. Dignam is exactly that and I love it, but you have to expect more character development from one of the three main characters in a prestige drama.

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I’m not totally certain when the bloom came off of the rose for me with The Departed. As I said, it’s a movie that I wholly enjoyed and sang the praises of for a full year after its release. Maybe it was after seeing Infernal Affairs a couple years after The Departed and realizing what a tight, well made thriller the original film is. Maybe it was simply that the lengthy interim between my last viewing of The Departed and this viewing for my post had cast the film in the positive light of nostalgia for me, although I don’t think so. I think that, truly, I always knew that The Departed wasn’t the great movie that it purports itself to be, but I got carried away in the newness of it because it really is a fun movie a lot of the time. I certainly have issues with the film, but it has some enthralling moments of action that break through and grab the viewer. The overall package doesn’t warrant the sort of high praise the film often receives, but there are fleeting instances of a great crime drama within The Departed. Unfortunately, they’re so buried in the artificially complex narrative twisting and turning that the film insists upon that they rarely get the chance to connect in a meaningful way.