Reports of Kevin Smith's heresy are hearsay: His sinfully funny "Dogma" mocks a world fallen from grace.
Kevin Smith's Dogma is a deliriously audacious, one-of-a-kind satirical passion play that's as rascally in its glee as anything in Mad magazine, yet it's also a searching and obsessive meditation on faith in our time. The entire movie is a wild and intricate theological debate, a Sunday-school catechism session turned into a snap-crackle-and-pop thrill sermon for the mind. Smith, make no mistake, is far from a blasphemer (the only thing obscene about ''Dogma'' is how cruddy it looks), but, my God, does he love to tweak pieties! He turns adolescent naughtiness into a style, a worldview, and ''Dogma,'' in its very form, is a manic act of transubstantiation.
Smith follows a pair of bad-boy angels as they attempt to regain their place in heaven. At the beginning, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are sitting around in an airport, and before we can even be sure what they're talking about, the two have let fly a flurry of boasts and parries, like a couple of wise-guy jocks one-upping each other with baseball statistics. Who, exactly, are these two? Their names are Loki and Bartleby, and they're angels who have been consigned to everlasting exile in Wisconsin.
In their jostling, sarcastic way, Loki and Bartleby have bruised and hungry egos; they can't believe how far man has fallen. The two go on a bloody mission to cleanse the world of sinners (inspecting a gun at a weapons shop, Loki says, ''It doesn't have that wrath-of-the-Almighty edge to it!''), and when they start spraying bullets, ego -- that is, selfishness -- emerges as the film's true theme; it's the enemy of faith.
I do wish that Smith would discipline himself into becoming more of a bona fide filmmaker. At times, ''Dogma'' suggests a radio play that's been hastily staged as a movie; like all of Smith's work, it occasionally lumbers and stalls. He doesn't give Linda Fiorentino enough of a heroine to play, and considering the film's array of (knowingly) cheap-looking special effects, it could have used more of a magical fantasy sheen.
Still, you forgive the slipshod rhythms and the spare, merely functional visuals when you reach the climactic confrontation at a New Jersey church. Affleck makes Bartleby, now veering over to the dark side, into a figure of majestic malevolence, and by the time that Alanis Morissette shows up as the Almighty Herself (the singer's beatific good humor makes the stunt casting work), the tensions have fused into a vision of transcendence and light. It's not every day you get to see a movie that begins in satire and ends in reverence, but then, for Kevin Smith, they may ultimately be the same thing.
-- Owen Gleiberman