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
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
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
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.
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