Lions Gate Film
*Being John Malkovich (R)
The disclaimer that opens Kevin Smith's already infamous religious comedy, Dogma, reminds moviegoers: "even God has a sense of humor. Think of the platypus."
That would be funny enough, but Smith goes on to apologize to platypus lovers, assuming they might be offended by the inference. The point? Smith understands something many Hollywood studios would just as soon filmmakers didn't know -- you can't please all the people, no matter what you do, and you're most likely going to offend someone, no matter what you do. And since that's the case, why not just go for broke?
After all the pre-release hoopla over Dogma, I was actually surprised at how relatively mild it is, utterly silly and pleasantly tinged with a mischievousness that's irresistible.
The mark for how low this comedy will go is set in one of the first scenes, featuring comedian George Carlin as Cardinal Glick, a New Jersey priest spearheading a campaign called "Catholicism Wow!" In an attempt to draw people back to the church, Glick proposes the retirement of the crucifix, declaring: "Christ didn't come to earth to give us the willies!" So Glick unveils what he believes should be the church's new symbol, the "buddy Christ," a smiling facsimile of the savior flashing two thumbs up.
Clearly, anyone who perceives this scene as a blasphemous attack on the mother church should not see Dogma. But if you see it as an extension of a theme Smith has played on before in earlier, equally irreverent films (Clerks, Mallrats) -- the crass commercialization of everything that is sacred in the late 20th century -- then you'll likely enjoy Dogma.
The story, in a nutshell: Loki and Bartleby (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) are two angels banished from heaven and sentenced to eternity in Wisconsin. When Glick announces the opening of a refurbished cathedral to kick off his Catholicism Wow! campaign, they see a celestial loophole, a way they can return home. There's a catch, however. If they reverse God's judgment and succeed, the impact could end the human race. So God sends agents to earth, to help prevent that from happening. A disillusioned Catholic woman, Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), is chosen to stop Loki and Bartleby after the Voice of God, the angel Metatron (Alan Rickman), appears to her in a dream. Joined by New Jersey prophets Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith reprising the sidekick roles they've played in all Smith's films), and Rufus, the disgruntled, unrecognized 13th Apostle (Chris Rock), Bethany sets out to stop the end of the world.
It's not ingenious, but it's damn clever, and Smith's script is typically verbose and vulgar. The casting works wonderfully throughout, with stellar moments from Rickman, nice low-key consistency from Fiorentino, and a wonderful turn by Jason Lee (Chasing Amy) as a demon up from hell to assist Loki and Bartleby in their scheme. A bit too long, Smith should have foregone the special-effects-driven scene that unleashes the demon Golgothan (an excrement-slinging monster) and stuck with the delightful cast of characters.
Smarter by far, and also wonderfully acted, is Spike Jonze's bizarre adult comedy, Being John Malkovich, a witty take on the lengths we will go for our 15 minutes of fame.
John Cusack is marvelous as Craig Schwartz, a brilliant loser who can only relate to the closet full of puppets he sculpts and manipulates in his workshop. Unable to make a living puppeteering, Schwartz takes a job as a filing clerk at LesterCorp, a strange corporate netherland wedged on the 7 1/2 floor of a New York office building. Seduced, then rebuffed at work by the beautiful Maxine (Catherine Keener), Craig stumbles one day upon a tiny doorway in the wall. When he crawls through it, he is inexplicably drawn into the body and mind of actor John Malkovich, where he remains for 15 minutes, then is spit out into a ditch off the New Jersey Turnpike.
Many others follow Craig through the portal, including his dopey wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz), who discovers her masculine side when she finds herself in John Malkovich's shower. A Japanese man who pays $200 to go through the portal, is ecstatic following his experience of being John Malkovich while Malkovich shops for bath towels from a catalog.
If this sounds terribly mundane, be assured it is not. Jonze's direction, the brilliant script by first-timer Charlie Kaufman, razor-sharp cinematography by Lance Acord (Buffalo '66) and the outstanding ensemble cast combine to make this one whirlwind of a moviegoing experience. Unexpected turns keep the audience alert and interested, and the payoff is in the film's ability to sustain the central conceit.
Jonze stands out among TV and video directors making the move to feature-length films with his intelligence, humor and unpretentiousness. Unlike many of them, he doesn't rely on camera tricks and visual effects to stimulate an audience, but tells and sustains a damn good story with wicked gleefulness and palpable joy.
Ingenius casting helps too. Orson Bean as Dr. Lester and Mary Kay Place as his receptionist Floris provide some of the film's silliest and funniest moments -- he's a 105-year-old letch, and she has a degree in speech impedimentology, rendering her incapable of understanding a word anyone says.
And don't worry, you'll still like John Malkovich when it's all over.