It's a rare and exciting prospect when an independent-minded filmmaker decides to tackle a dangerous subject head-on, and you don't get any more dangerous than religion. But do you get any more independent-minded than Kevin Smith? Despite his attempts at subversiveness, from the unapologetic verbal vulgarity of Clerks to the sexual-orientation games of Chasing Amy, you can certainly find more independence than Smith, who is, underneath the extremities, rather nakedly eager to please. What you'd have trouble finding is a filmmaker more in love with his own independence.

Some people love Smith's giddy, back-slapping comedy style; others find it strained, amateurish, and much too enamored with itself for its own good. I belong in the latter school of thought, and as far as I'm concerned, Smith ought to feel lucky that the phrase 'school of thought' and his name come up in the same sentence to begin with. But first things first. Dogma does not show anything approaching a disdain for God or spirituality of any sort-it is, in fact, positively pious. Smith's plan is to give Catholicism a gentle, good-natured poke in the ribs, and to put forth a message few could honestly argue with-that the emotions and values represented by organized religion are ultimately more important than the organized religions themselves. In Smith's eyes, it is God who is infallible, not the human-touched Bible, not the human Pope, not the human-written and practiced laws of the Church. To prove otherwise, in the Gospel according to Kevin, is to bring the entirety of the human race to apocalypse.

Such lofty ideas are communicated through a seemingly endless stream of character prattle, as well as through Smith's calling card of raunchy humor. Smith calls his film a 'comic fantasia,' which suggests free verse, but he actually adopts the rigid structure of an old-fashioned caper comedy. Three disparate parties race towards a holy grail, which in this case happens to be a church in Red Bank, New Jersey, where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. That's because angels Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who were banished from heaven after Bartleby convinced Loki to resign from his job as angel of death, have found a loophole to God's decree-if they can pass through the sacred arch of the newly christened church, they will be absolved of all sins, and can thus get their ticket back once they resume human form and are killed (and along the way, they practice some distastefully unfortunate and ugly gunplay in a post-Columbine context). They don't really care that proving the fallibility of God will bring down the human race, and neither does Azrael (Jason Lee), the exiled demon who, with his three teenage roller-blading minions, does all he can to make sure that Loki and Bartleby reach their goal. Assigned as the savior of mankind is Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), an abortion clinic employee and disillusioned Catholic who, one night, is visited by the angel Metatron (cast standout Alan Rickman, in a wonderfully wry performance), who lets her in on the stakes. She is reluctantly sent on her way, and on the trip to Jersey she is joined by Rufus (Chris Rock), the ignored and agitated 13th apostle; Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a muse who moonlights as a stripper; and the two most unlikely prophets ever, recurring Smith characters Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself).

In Smith's typically ribald fashion, these prophets have just one thing on their mind in the company of the attractive Bethany, and it isn't the fate of the human race. Putting biblical questions aside, Smith's main goal is always comedy first. The question isn't how offensive the film is (because, except for the hardcore fundamentalists who won't go near the movie anyway, it shouldn't offend), it's the effectiveness of the jokes, and the problem is that Smith's overall style is as coarse as his sensibility. Watching Smith as Silent Bob is like watching the worst silent-movie actor who ever lived. It's nothing but wildly overemotive gesturing and mugging, which is an apt metaphor for his comedy as a whole-precious little of it flows naturally, and it tries much too hard to call attention to itself. You can feel the effort in Smith's work, though it must be said that, higher ambitions aside, this is a step forward for him. Dogma is his most cinematically appealing work to date (thanks to cinematographer Robert Yeoman), and it is also his most lively and assured, which is good, because the movie always feels like it's in danger of dissolving into a mess of tones and plot hairs and political agendas. The thing basically holds together, and there are some ideas within it that actually do come to life, such as his immensely likeable version of a giddily childlike Great Almighty (played by singer Alanis Morissette). Dogma takes a comically cockeyed path in its attempt to provide a hopeful view of humanity, but its true success is more modest. It shows that there just may be hope for Kevin Smith.

--David Luty