Carlin and Boys Can’t Resurrect Old Kevin Smith Screenplay

Kevin Smith’s Dogma

did not incite any religious riots at the screening I attended. Perhaps I would

find it easier to review if there had been. As it is, I felt the audience

responded to the film’s well-meaning whimsicalities with a kindly indulgence I

was unable to grant. To believe or not to believe, that is the question in all

religious drama. Mr. Smith clearly does not believe everything he was taught by

the nuns and the priests. Otherwise, he would not have cast God as a woman

(Alanis Morissette). In so doing, he has followed Jean-Luc Godard’s path in

demystifying the Madonna in Hail Mary

(1985), but with a sense of renewed awe for all women.

The late Cardinal Spellman of New York’s archdiocese

condemned as sacrilegious Roberto Rossellini’s The Miracle (1948), ironically one of the most movingly religious

films in the history of the cinema, ending as it does with the ecstatically

enraptured expression on Anna Magnani’s face as her feeble-minded peasant

character looks with adoration at her newborn child, thus invoking the eternal

and universal miracle of all motherhood. Not surprisingly, the Vatican did not

share Cardinal Spellman’s displeasure.

Still, I have problems with the tone and style of Mr.

Smith’s metaphysical magnification of his New Jersey absurdism, which was so

much more appropriately applied in Clerks

and especially in the almost sublime Chasing

Amy . Truth to tell, I am getting a little tired of Ben Affleck and Matt

Damon and their hunky camaraderie as the fallen angels Bartleby and Loki on a

mission that will mean the end of existence as we know it.

George Carlin’s Cardinal Glick has opened a loophole in

God’s contract with the universe by unctuously updating Christ’s image to make

him more joyous. Mr. Carlin, for all his comic and satiric gifts, reflects what

is wrong with Dogma as it tries to

bring new life to an old Smith screenplay. Mr. Carlin can barely conceal his

contempt for the obvious moral hypocrisy of the character he is playing.

Similarly, Chris Rock, so hilariously explosive as an unfettered stand-up

comedian, is comparatively ineffective as thetightlyscripted13thapostle.Jason

Mewes and Mr. Smith himself, as Jay and Silent Bob, respectively, are

persistently off-key as the two prophets sent ahead to warn the new Madonna,

Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), of the threat posed by Bartleby and Loki.

I did, however, approve of Mr. Smith’s serious treatment of

the melodrama and the spasms of feeling he generated in Be-thany’s drunken

confession of her loss of faith in God. But these felicities cannot overcome my

suspicion that Mr. Smith has gotten in way over his head, with the result that Dogma is more strained than funny.

Soldiers of Fortune

David O. Russell’s Three

Kings , based on a story by John Ridley, superficially resembles-especially

in its boom-boom, special-effects trailer-the familiar three-rascals-on-a-romp

action merry-go-round. But only superficially. This is to say that Three Kings is closer to the absurdist

countercultural thrusts of Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Mike Nichols’ and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1970) than to the unabashedly

romantic Three Musketeer heroics reprised through centuries of historical time

by the Foreign Legionnaires of Beau Geste

(1939), the Empire Brits of Gunga Din ,

The Four Feathers (1939) and Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), and the

individual and collective heroes of more westerns than one can count.

Indeed, Three Kings

is closer to the cutting edges of Mr. Russell’s previous films, Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting With Disaster (1996) than it is

to conventional buddy-buddy war movies. Only this time Mr. Russell is not

taking farcical liberties with the previously taboo subjects of masturbation

and incest in Spanking , or with the

misadventures of locating one’s blood parents in Flirting . Three Kings is

concerned instead with a repudiation of American policy during and after the

Persian Gulf War. This presents an interesting marketing problem, in that many

of the kids in the audience don’t even remember the Gulf War and couldn’t care

less about its ultimate consequences, whereas many adults, especially women,

are put off by the genre itself and its violence even though its message is

spectacularly anti-violence.

Three Kings starts

off cynically enough with a post-Gulf-War victory celebration closer to Animal House (1978) and a George W.

Bush Yale fraternity party than to George Bush’s self-righteously exultant

self-congratulation over the liberation of poor little Kuwait and its

endangered oil oligarchy. Mr. Russell’s boisterous, pennant-winning clubhouse

treatment of  the scene stops well short

of the outright anti-American-soldier derision associated with the

anti-Vietnam-War youth movements of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

With just a nod to John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), George Clooney’s Special

Forces Captain Archie Gates persuades three subordinates, Mark Wahlberg’s

Sergeant Troy Barlow, Ice Cube’s Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin and Spike Jonze’s

Conrad Vig, to join him in an unauthorized hunt for millions of dollars in gold

bars stolen by Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwaiti banks. The Gulf War

privateers find the gold bars without much difficulty, but in the process they

are caught up in the chaotic aftermath of the armistice. It is the time when

the Iraqis who rose up against Saddam on the implied promise of assistance from

the victorious Americans were being massacred by the defeated remnants of

Saddam’s army.

Suddenly, the camera concentrates on the sad-eyed women and

children widowed and orphaned by Saddam’s killers and torturers. As if on cue

from a CNN special report, our initially greedy gold-hunters are immediately

transformed into selfless humanitarians. Under the circumstances, Mr. Clooney,

Mr. Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Mr. Jonze perform above and beyond the call of duty

in a movie that is less character-driven than spectacle-driven. Mr. Russell

seems to have become mesmerized by the visual possibilities of the enormously

empty spaces at his disposal. It is as if the camera were asking the audience,

What are we doing here, anyway? and then turned to capture another explosion

without waiting for an answer.

Mr. Russell is certainly making a deeply felt personal and

political statement in Three Kings

about the immorality of recent American foreign-policy decisions, and he is

making it with atrocity footage that is calculated to make the viewer’s blood

boil. As I understand it, the decision not to march on to Baghdad and remove

Saddam Hussein from power was officially explained in terms of a reluctance to

exceed the United Nations’ mandate and thus jeopardize the jerry-built “grand

alliance.” There were rumors, also, about highly placed fears of creating a

vacuum in an Iraq without Saddam, a vacuum that Iran would be only too ready to

fill so as to become the dominant power in the region. In other words, oil is

what got us into Iraq, and oil is what got us out, and however you may despise

the filthy stuff, American politicians in both parties are terrified of

motorists arriving at empty gasoline pumps.

These unpleasant rationalizations are naturally never

considered in Three Kings , largely

because Mr. Russell implicitly condemns the Gulf War itself, and the violence

committed in all wars. Indeed, the movie goes so far as to explore at

stomach-turning length what happens to one’s internal organs from a bullet

wound. The actual images were those of a real corpse recruited for the

demonstration. To his credit, Mr. Russell resists the temptation to take some

cheap shots at the media for presenting a sanitized Gulf War on our screens.

Instead, he makes Nora Dunn’s television reporter Adriana Cruz the heroine of

the movie by making her omnipresent camera tell enough of the truth to enable

the morally redeemed heroes to escape court-martials after performing their

good deeds.

Three Kings is a

likable enough entertainment, endowed with force and conviction, and I can

understand its rave reviews. Yet I am bothered by what I consider at the very

least an intellectual inconsistency in its argument. If we in the United States

are going to become enraged every time we see people brutalized anywhere in the

world-and thanks to CNN, we can see them all the time-where are we going to

draw the line on the use of our enormous military power? I have seen too many

onetime anti-Vietnam-War demonstrators turn around and demand we nuke the

Serbs. Three Kings at least makes one

think about the problem, and for that it deserves to succeed commercially.