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Controversy is really nothing new to Kevin Smith.

The popular writer/director made headlines back in 1994 when his debut offering, "Clerks," was given the MPAA's scarlet letter NC-17 rating based solely on language. With the help of O.J. Simpson defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz, Smith was able to successfully appeal the rating without making content cuts.

Five years and two films later, Smith is in the frying pan again -- this time under the label of blasphemy for "Dogma," his controversial tale of religion, redemption and the vulnerability of faith. A host of religious groups has cited the film as being anti-Catholic -- despite its overtly apparent tongue-in-cheek nature. At its center, "Dogma" follows the controversial plans of ousted angels Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck). Banned for all eternity to the wondrous playland that is Wisconsin, the pair devises a devious plan that would take advantage of a small loophole in church dogma. It seems that if they pass through the blessed arch of a New Jersey cathedral, they would be free to return to heaven. Unfortunately, in doing so, they would also prove God fallible -- thereby negating mankind and destroying the universe.

As is true in any tale of worldly destruction and miniscule odds of survival, the weight of humanity is put on the shoulders of an unwitting soul who finds that saving the universe may not be all it's cracked up to be. Linda Fiorentino stars as Bethany, a woman whose own questions of faith make her an unlikely candidate for world savior. Be that as it may, she is visited by a sardonic angel named Metatron who informs her of the world's impending destruction.

Fortunately -- or so it would be assumed -- Bethany needn't take on this task entirely alone. With the help of a wayward apostle named Rufus (Chris Rock), a beautiful muse named Serendipity (Salma Hayek) and the ever-stoned pair of Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Director Smith), Bethany and Metatron attempt to reach New Jersey before all hell breaks loose -- literally.

In many ways, "Dogma" proves to be Smith's most complicated piece -- both in writing and in execution. While his previous work has incorporated a small core of actors, "Dogma" is a large ensemble cast, and though much of the dialogue is vintage Smith, there is a much deeper attempt at storytelling this time around than in either "Clerks" or "Mallrats."

With the exception of his 1997 feature, "Chasing Amy," "Dogma" proves to be the most ambitious of Smith's body of work. Pulling together elements of humor, fantasy, drama and spirituality, one can hardly argue the effort. Unfortunately, as talented a writer as he is, one cannot help but find himself caught up in the sheer size of the project. With so much happening and so many people involved, it becomes difficult to connect for too long with many of the characters.

Individually, there are some very solid performances. Affleck and Damon provide the stability and down-home normality needed to sell their roles. Fiorentino proves a strong and defiant protagonist -- someone audiences can identify and cheer for.

Surprisingly, however, it is the supporting positions -- more notably, the comic supporting positions -- that don't live up to expectations. Chris Rock and Jason Lee -- both capable of bringing audiences to tears with their sly and mischievous humor -- are never given good enough material to carry them over the top. While perfectly capable in their collective parts, one still can't help but feel that something is missing if these two actors aren't providing a lot of laughs. Worse still, after commenting about how he wanted to bring dignity back to the characters Jay and Silent Bob after the whole "Mallrats" fiasco (which, to his credit, he did in "Chasing Amy"), Director Smith lowers the two back into the abyss of Keystone cops silliness.

Ultimately, the viewer is less interested in the final conflict than in individual stories and the interaction among Smith's eclectic cast. And while the film may be guilty in some eyes of outright blasphemy, film lovers are far more likely to frown on the movie for its more tangible shortcomings. Smith is clearly an able writer and director. Unfortunately, his forte continues to seemingly lie with the simple and impassioned smaller films he has made his name with.

*MPAA rating: R, for strong language, including sex-related dialogue, violence, crude humor and some drug content.


Ben Affleck: Bartleby

Matt Damon: Loki

Linda Fiorentino: Bethany

Salma Hayek: Serendipity

Chris Rock: Rufus

Jason Mewes: Jay

Alan Rickman: Metatron - the voice of God

Kevin Smith: Silent Bob

Ethan Suplee: Noman

Jason Lee: Azrael

A Lions Gate presentation. Director Kevin Smith. Screenplay Kevin Smith. Producer Scott Mosier. Director of Photography Bob Yeoman. Editors Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier. Music Howard Shore. Music Supervisor Randall Poster. Production Designer Robert Holtzman. Art Director Elise G. Viola. Costume Designer Abigail Murray. Set Designer Larry M. Gruber. Set Decorator Diana Stoughton. Sound Whit Norris. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.