Fans of the "Star Trek" film franchise are well aware of the 'odd number' curse that plagues the series. From "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (the first film) to "Star Trek: Insurrection" (the ninth film), the odd-numbered installments have tended to suffer from audience ennui and less-than-spectacular numbers at the box office. Interestingly enough, there is another franchise in which it seems that the even-numbered installments are 'cursed'-- the films of writer/director Kevin Smith.
Kevin Smith's breakthrough effort "Clerks", despite its low-budget production values, was a snappily written and sharply satiric ode to the services industry and its demoralized workforce. "Chasing Amy", his third film, was a well-written and insightful piece that detailed the unlikely courtship of a hetero- male and a lesbian, upending expectations and the conventions of your average romantic comedy at every turn. On the other hand, Smith's second effort, "Mallrats", was a barely passable jumble of silly action sequences, gross-out humor, and uninteresting dialogue that quickly disappeared from theaters after its release. Continuing on the 'even number' curse is Smith's latest film "Dogma", the so-called 'fourth part' to his 'Jersey Trilogy'. Though this well-intentioned and ambitious offering does have its moments, overall, "Dogma" winds up exhibiting the ineptitude seen in "Mallrats" rather than the entertaining mix of comedy and acerbic commentary seen in "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy".
This time, instead of delving into the lives of service workers, the nature of relationships, or the microcosm of the world found in your average shopping mall, Smith explores issues of religion and faith in his usual bawdy and take-no-prisoners approach. The story dwells on two angels, Loki (Matt Damon of "Saving Private Ryan") and Bartleby (Ben Affleck of "Shakespeare in Love"), who have been banished from Heaven for going against God's will and are now spending their days in suburban Wisconsin. However, they discover a loophole in Catholic dogma in which by passing through the archway of a New Jersey cathedral they will be absolved of all their sins and thus be able to re-enter heaven.
Unfortunately, such a move would completely undo the universe, and so Metraton (Alan Rickman of "Die Hard"), an archangel who 'speaks' for God, summons a woman named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino of "Men in Black"), a modern-day descendant of Jesus Christ who happens to work in an abortion clinic. To assist with the huge task of saving the universe from two fallen angels, Bethany is joined by Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith, reprising their roles from the previous three films), the 13th Apostle Rufus (Chris Rock of "Lethal Weapon 4"), muse-turned-stripper Serendipity (Salma Hayek of "Wild Wild West"), and even God herself (singer Alanis Morrisette). However, the work of these would-be crusaders will not be easy, as they must go against the will of a stubborn cardinal (comedian George Carlin) who refutes their warnings of impending doom, and a demon named Azrael (Jason Lee of "Enemy of the State") who eagerly awaits the destruction of creation.
With these plot elements, it shouldn't be surprising that the Catholic League has denounced the film and organized numerous protests over it, including one during its premiere at the New York City Film Festival. Though Smith takes a number of satirical swipes at the Church in "Dogma", he also raises some eye-opening questions on the nature of faith and belief. As opposed to being a savage attack on the Church, "Dogma" is a film that indirectly celebrates faith by poking fun at some of the Church's institutions, while at the same time asking questions on some of the deeper issues of Catholic ideology.
Unfortunately, aside from the theological issues that it tackles, "Dogma" is not as well written or brilliantly executed as "Clerks" or "Chasing Amy". Smith has always been a better writer than director (even the fixed camera angles of his earlier films is apparent here), instilling wit and insight into otherwise mundane conversations, such as fanboy rantings about "Star Wars". However, in the case of "Dogma", it seems that Smith focused more on the religious bantering at the expense of keeping the audience interested-- the metaphysical and religious rhetoric overpower everything else in the film, and the result is very drawn-out and dry. This, in combination with laggard pacing, lack of comic brilliance, lackluster dialogue, one-dimensional characters, and over-reliance on toilet humor, make for a film that more akin to "Mallrats" in both tone and execution. About the only bright spots in the film are Jay and Silent Bob, whose on-screen antics are guaranteed to elicit a chuckle, or in the very least, crack a smile. The 'Jersey Trilogy' dynamic-duo are terrific comic characters whose behaviors and tics have been so well-defined and it's always fun to watch them in new situations. It's just too bad that their scenes were few and far-between.
With Kevin Smith's cult following in the indie film world, there has been much anticipation for the release of "Dogma". For Kevin Smith purists, "Dogma" does deliver some of the goods on a very basic level, mainly through the on-screen antics Jay and Silent Bob. However, for those who are not fans of Kevin Smith or are unaware of his work, "Dogma" can be a very challenging film to sit through. If the 'even number' curse holds true, then maybe we can expect something truly remarkable from the director for his fifth film.