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RIBALD `DOGMA' EQUAL PARTS HUMOR, BURLESQUE, CRITIQUE.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

``Dogma'' would be the irreverent masterpiece some say or the sacrilegious outrage others have decried if it weren't such a goofy mess. A stoner comedy, X-Men adventure, social critique and metaphysical burlesque show never quite coherently rolled into one, it's a film overflowing with smart ideas that nevertheless plays out dumb. There are more bad laughs than good ones in this unwieldy tall tale, but the film is fascinating, if just barely, for the sheer uniqueness of its hodgepodge eclecticism.

Kevin Smith, the master of studiedly inept visual storytelling (``Clerks,'' ``Mallrats,'' ``Chasing Amy''), goes all-out with this loopy parable of comic-book epiphany in our fallen contemporary world. His theological ideas are mildly provocative, his scatalogical humor is as childish as ever, performances are all over the map and no aspiring filmmaker should even think of emulating the way anything in this movie looks. All of which makes ``Dogma,'' for better or for worse, this termite artist's magnum opus.

It probably won't make many new converts to the Church of Clerks, but on the other hand, God is surely too busy to waste good wrath time on such a silly endeavor.

While Smith delights here in taking satiric jabs at all that Christendom, and especially Catholicism, holds sacred, the movie's real agenda runs on two rather pious tracks. It's about moralistic judgment and unlikely redemption, themes it shares with the vast majority of Sunday- morning sermons.

Bartleby and Loki, two vengeful, sexless angels - played with alarming certitude by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon - cut a violent swath across an American landscape damned by corporate greed, industrial blight and media overkill, seeking a return to the heaven that they consider we mortals too corrupt to enter.

Meanwhile, a motley crew of divinely chosen screwballs tries to prevent Loki and Bartleby from reaching a New Jersey church that will mystically transport the angels home and destroy all God's works in the process. Along the way, these kind-of-heroic prodigals could earn themselves something like the gift of faith.

What this means to you and me is that mankind's fate rests in the shaky hands of the following, indifferently performed losers: Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a lapsed Catholic-turned-abortion- clinic worker and distant relative of Jesus; Rufus (Chris Rock), the trash-talking, self-proclaimed 13th apostle, who explains that he was left out of the Bible because he's black; Metatron (Alan Rickman), God's own seraphic spokesman, who really ought to do something about that snotty British attitude of his; Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a heavenly muse now working as a lap dancer after inspiring 19 of the top 20 box office hits of all time (as for the one she can't explain, let's just say that the movie attacks John Hughes more savagely than it does the church); and Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith himself), two cheap thrill-seeking slackers who have been elevated from sidebar status in the director's previous films to the ranks of prophets here.

Between encounters with monsters made of holy excrement and hopeless attempts to score with Bethany, our heroes debate the usual questions naughty catechism students discuss among themselves. God, the sound of whose voice will blow up a mortal's brain, is played by Alanis Morissette - a great joke of casting that will probably be lost on the film's more pious protesters.

Not that their complaints about ``Dogma'' are uniformly wrong. From a devout point of view, this film is as nasty as it will be perceived hilarious by those who think George Carlin as a priest with a new ``Buddy Jesus'' marketing scheme is a stroke of genius.

The rest of us will chuckle and groan in slightly unequal measure. And those who worship film as art will pray that someday Smith will let his director of photography (in this case, ``Drugstore Cowboy'' and ``Rushmore's'' accomplished Robert Yeoman) and production designer do their jobs properly. And that he'll maybe hire real editors and a dialogue coach, amen.

The facts

The film: ``Dogma'' (R; language, violence, drug use).

The stars: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Salma Hayek, Jason Lee, Jason Mewes, Alanis Morissette, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, Kevin Smith.

Behind the scenes: Written and directed by Kevin Smith. Produced by Scott Mosier. Released by Lions Gate Films.

Running time: Two hours, five minutes.

Playing: Citywide.

Our rating: Two and one half stars
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Nov 12, 1999
Words:726
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