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Dogma, as you may have heard, is an armageddon caper with a cast of characters that includes a pro-choice world savior, a divine messenger who complains of being "as anatomically impaired as a Ken doll," a supreme deity who takes the form of Alanis Morrisette and a 13th apostle named Rufus who, when asked if he knew Jesus Christ, replies, "Nigger owes me 12 bucks!"

The Catholic League has been pursuing Kevin Smith's cheerfully vulgar, humorously violent, devoutly naughty mix of low comedy and high concept ever since it had its world premiere at Cannes back in May. Thanks to the ruckus over the "Sensation" show, the New York Film Festival dodged a bullet when Dogma screened last month. (Still, despite an elaborate special effect called a "Golgotha shit demon," the Holy Virgin Mary doesn't even have a cameo.) Catholicism, for Smith, seems less a source of awe than potentially awesome superhero antics and arcane japery.

Pitched somewhere between Wings of Desire and Mystery Men, Dogma elaborates the filmmaker's parochial school musings into a cooler cosmology than the faux theological fantasies Phantom Menace and Matrix combined. Prompted by one of Satan's li'l devils (Jason Lee), a pair of yo-dude fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), exiled to Wisconsin for all eternity, discover that the feel-good Catholicism promoted by a wacky New Jersey cardinal (George Carlin) has provided them with a loophole to redemption. As it would confound God's infallibility, their salvation thus threatens to nullify all existence. Sounds paradoxical, and the hunky angels dispute the finer points of this cosmic snafu at some length-one can only imagine the laddish shouts and high-fives that followed each take.

To save the universe, God's messenger (embittered-acting Alan Rickman) summons the Chosen One (played, with too much whining sarcasm, by a seemingly depressed Linda Fiorentino) to journey out of a Midwestern abortion clinic to New Jersey, accompanied on her mission by Smith's recurring characters, the stoners Silent Bob (the filmmaker) and yammering Jay (Jason Mewes). To add to the Wizard of Oz flavor, they're joined along the way by the apostle Rufus (Chris Rock) and a muse (Salma Hayek, whom Smith gets to prance and grind in her underwear).

Less than a struggle between good and evil (or being and nothingness), Dogma seems predicated on a cosmic sibling rivalry. The firstborn angels are jealous of human free will, as well as the deity's seeming indulgence for human sin. Damon's former angel of death has a particular propensity for freelance "smiting," which is visited most spectacularly on the corporate idolators who market the cartoon creature Mooby the Golden Calf-a blatantly Mickey Mouse?like fount of movies, videos, theme parks and other ancillary items. (Some consider the desecration of this sacred cash cow to be the real reason Disney ordered its subsidiary Miramax to ditch Dogma.)

To its credit, Dogma has a Boschean element. No less than the early Renaissance church painters, Smith is trying to make Christian mythology contemporary-although, unlike these precursors, he has no feel for composition, landscape or character. An opening disclaimer warns critics that "passing judgment is reserved for God and God alone"-perhaps it's a good thing then that, Salma Hayek notwithstanding, Dogma doesn't provide much to look at. Indeed, Smith's desultory film sense seems all the more peculiar considering Dogma's insistence on cinema as the ultimate consciousness modifier. A few abstruse points of dogmatic law aside, movies are virtually Smith's only cultural referent. "If there isn't a movie about it, it's not worth knowing," the Heavenly Messenger complains. "Mention something out of a Charlton Heston movie and everybody's a theology scholar."

Basically, Smith enjoys exegesis. Like Clerks and Chasing Amy, Dogma is a stand-up comedy. Once the ball is put in play, the viewer must endure a flat second half, indulging torturously static explanations delivered by characters so garrulous they make those of Eric Rohmer seem as tight-lipped as Silent Bob. (One reason why the eye-rolling Rock stands out is because he's a comic who can deliver one-liners-perhaps Smith should have done more with Carlin.) After slogging through a morass of exposition, the action picks up-but by then it is too late. Whatever visionary potential Smith's saga once had has devolved to the level of doodling in church.

On one hand, Dogma exhibits a touchingly childlike faith. On the other, it's a tediously childish exhibition. (The real disclaimer should warn against seeing the movie a second time.) For all its profane language and scatology, Dogma has nowhere near the anticlerical wit of Luis Buñuel's Nazarin or Viridiana-let alone his L'Age d'Or, an act of blasphemy that drove the 1932 Paris equivalent of the Catholic League to trash the theater and the pope to threaten its producer with excommunication.

Another Comic Book of Revelations, Luc Besson's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc stars Milla Jovovich as the Babe of Orleans. The battle scenes are stirring in a brainless way. Besson is something of a wiseacre and there are moments, including a major steal from The Sound of Music, that are almost as funny as Dogma. "She's nuts," someone says of Joan in the heat of combat. Still, the movie would have been nearly as improved by a Kevin Smith script polish as Dogma would have benefited from Besson's chintzy panache.

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