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Filmmaker Kevin Smith gleefully rushes in where other directors fear to tread. 

Biting "Dogma"

Writer-director Kevin Smith may have bitten off more than he can chew with "Dogma," an often hilarious satire of contemporary religious customs. But fans of Smith's growing body of work will forgive his sins of cinematic omission as they celebrate his unique theology. Simply put, for Smith, the spoken word is God. As with his other films, Smith's characters in "Dogma" talk and talk and talk. And pacing be damned. Given Smith's highly personal vernacular, which is a whacked-out melting pot of comic books, arrested-development male-isms and serious thought, it's a miracle he decided to tackle such a hot potato.

While "Dogma" suffers more than a few sins of excess and omission, its freewheeling ability to ignite a religious debate that is as interesting and intriguing to surfer dudes as it is to trained theologians cannot be ignored.

At the heart of "Dogma" are two bad-boy angels: Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who have been exiled to Wisconsin for so long that they've come up with a dangerous plan. It seems that one Cardinal Glick (the always iconoclastic George Carlin) is about to rededicate a church in New Jersey. The rededication is actually the kickoff for the cardinal's public relations campaign to reawaken organized Catholicism.

Disgusted at just how far man has fallen, these two "Me Generation" angels embark on a bloody mission to rid the Earth of sinners and regain their rightful place in the firmament. Soon, Smith introduces us to an amazing and often hilarious array of characters who struggle over the fate of all mankind. You see, Loki and Bartleby figure that if they can prove that God is fallible by using a loophole in Catholic dogma to reenter heaven, then they negate all existence. And that means big trouble for mortals and immortals alike.

Our two vengeful angels find themselves being pursued by an unlikely heroine named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), who works at an abortion clinic and tithes her salary to the church. Bethany is soon surrounded by such celestial creatures as Metatron (Alan Rickman), one of God's angelic messengers as well as Smith's ever-present characters, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (the filmmaker himself).

Also adding to the celestial zaniness are Chris Rock as the 13th Apostle who falls out of the sky and Salma Hayek as the Muse Serendipity, who claims to have inspired every one of the top 20 highest-grossing movies of all time, save "Home Alone." Jason Lee shows up as another fallen angel.

Though the movie has not played without some protests, truth be told, Smith is no blasphemer. In fact, "Dogma's" self-piety is one of its worst sins. Its second has to be just how cruddy the movie looks, although that too is intentional. The avenging violence of Bartleby may also prove to be too much for the squeamish.

Playing like a fractured Vacation Bible School for adults, "Dogma" explores in deliriously entertaining fashion how "selfishness" may be the real enemy of faith. Smith seems to embrace the outlook expressed by one of his characters: "I have issues with anyone who treats faith as a burden instead of a blessing."

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