City Paper is not for tourists
So Catholics are running around like martyrs with their heads cut off because Kevin Smith has made a movie about God. They’re right about one thing: This is about the Goddiest movie you’ll ever see. Two hours plus of long, witty conversations about His nature, His celestial family, and the shape and function of faith in a world of gargantuan consumption—and more conversations about values, love, patience, and belief. No other movie—no contemporary work of art—forces its audience to think about God so much in such a concentrated period of time. Maybe the Catholics don’t like thinking about God; heck, Smith seems to think many of them don’t.
Dogma is in trouble among the ignorant—which argues for the inverse—but smarty-pants intellectuals who think the debate about faith was won with Nietzsche will find little comfort here. Still, Smith needs no special pleading to defend his movie. It’s funny, crazy, and whip-smart. It’s also a total mess and so steadfastly religious that it should be alienating atheists.
The film kicks off with a press conference by Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), spearhead of the “Catholicism Wow!” movement, announcing that the church aims to retire the whole depressing crucifix thing (“Christ didn’t come to earth to give us the willies”) and replace it with “Buddy Christ,” a new, friendly image of Jesus giving his flock a wink and a thumbs-up—far more frightening than anything that took place on Calvary. This scene fixes Smith’s protestations firmly; his thesis—that the cheapening of Catholic doctrine is a direct and debasing response to the demands of consumerism—will spin out threads throughout the film. Glick is an argument against Vatican II’s softy-puffy reforms, and even if Smith’s weapons are laughs—he places a box of “Hosties” cereal on the cardinal’s desk—he’s fighting with the gloves off. The Catholic church as he understands it has to stand for something; “changing with the times” negates the point of doctrine, which is or was clear on some points—fornicators, adulterers, and tax cheats, Smith assures us, will meet righteous ends.
The unwieldy plot centers around two fallen angels, Loki (Matt Damon), modeled after the mischievous and violent Norse demon Loki Skywalker, and businesslike Bartleby (Ben Affleck). Thanks to Glick’s secular revisionism, he has created a loophole that will allow these two winged hunks back into heaven, thus (don’t ask) proving the fallibility of God and negating all existence. Working for the forces of good, a heavenly messenger (Alan Rickman) charges the mortal Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) with the task of stopping the angels before they can destroy the world. A skeptical Catholic in the first stages of losing her faith, Bethany works at an abortion clinic and yawns her way through church services. What better way to secure her belief in a creator than to drop a motormouthed apostle (Chris Rock) and various other heavenly weirdos in her path and entrust her with such a monumental obligation?
Hooking up with some very grungy unwitting prophets, Smith-movie regulars Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith), Bethany travels with Rufus, the 13th apostle, toward Glick’s church in New Jersey. What happens along the way is indescribable, because Smith’s brain never shuts up, and neither do his characters. The complicated script actually works in the film’s favor, because it insists that these questions are hard, often unanswerable, and that one can’t talk seriously about faith in a context of mere entertainment, whose structure necessitates pat conclusions. (You can talk that way about the devil, which is why there’s not so much as a peep when something like Devil’s Advocate leads its opening weekend, but Smith isn’t interested in Satan; he doesn’t think the guy’s that powerful.)
There are lots of characters, all wittily cast and hilariously logorrheaic, even though their function is to weigh in on this tangled debate. Jay and Silent Bob, who seem to be interested only in getting stoned and seeing Bethany naked, are prophets despite themselves: “You can’t trust fuckin’ movies, man,” says Jay. (Fans of the uberslackers will be tickled to note that the pair refer to a caper executed by their two-dimensional counterparts in the Jay and Silent Bob comic books.) Over beers, Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a stripper and former muse, expresses her distaste for those who “treat God like a burden instead of a blessing”—a pointed remark made in the direction of skeptical Bethany. The apostle Rufus resents his exclusion from the Bible’s final edit, being how Christ himself is black and all. (Not to mention the fact that “Nigga owes me 12 bucks”; Smith introduces a black apostle and the concept of a black Christ only to ask why we should think it matters.)
Loki and Bartleby are also complex characters; as emissaries from heaven, they believe it is their duty to carry out good works, which consist of bloodily dispatching sinners. Their chief target is the board of directors for Mooby the Golden Calf, a Disneylike idol that draws worship away from the church and fosters mindless greed. The angels’ personalities change, too, as they approach the violent—dare we say apocalyptic—ending, during which they wield faith to destroy the faithful. All the bodies littering the streets at the maudlin, copout ending represent Smith’s chosen cavalier fate for the Catholics who annoy him, who don’t understand the Bible or their history, and who use doctrine for their own ends.
The mortal Bethany is representative of humanity’s elemental struggle with faith. Her burden is the burden of every Christian whose very existence lays upon him or her the onus of consciousness, whose creation demands obligation to a creator. In this wildly funny, overlong, and often amateurishly shot morality tale by a devout slacker guttermouth, Bethany’s mission isn’t cheapened, but exalted. Smith argues that religion is for the righteous, not the self-righteous; the agonized thinkers, not the complacent consumers; the people who engage in a dialogue with the universe, not those who condemn things sight unseen.
Fake street talk introduces the suspiciously diverse cast of characters—at least the ones we’re going to have to bother with later—in Light It Up, a lamely didactic, horribly uplifting urban youth melodrama. The setting is a high school in Queens with details by Hieronymus Bosch—broken windows turn classroom floors into ice rinks; the lights work intermittently; there aren’t enough books. Miserable conditions, to be sure, but just to be sure sure, the deck is stacked further: In this corner, we have the struggling kids, a rainbow coalition of the good, the good at heart, and the badass (also good at heart), as well as a nice teacher (Judd Nelson) striving valiantly to do his job; and over here are the rules-bound administrators, a mule-headed security guard (Forest Whitaker), and an uncaring world.
Thanks to the belligerent grown-ups, a misunderstanding leads to an accidental, nonlethal shooting, whereupon the school is emptied of all save six students and the security guard, whom they decide to call a hostage so the police won’t blow them up. When asked what their demands are, the students, led by singer Usher Raymond, who plays a nice kid gone bitter after the murder (by cops) of his father, realize that everyone is listening to their heretofore unheard voices.
The rest is The Breakfast Club for a violent new world, in which everyone’s Dark Secret comes to light and unlikely bonds are formed. The film lands so heavily in favor of the kids that it actually goes to absurd lengths to show how unjust their lives are. Despite the pleas of a kindly hostage negotiator (Vanessa L. Williams), their demands are curtly, unproductively rebuffed—no books for you, my pretties. Light It Up wants to say something about the stifling of the underclass and the inherent value of youth, but amid the nonmelting plastic snowflakes and distracting product placements, the message turns pat and obvious. Inner-city kids—all kids—must know that their lives are more complicated than this, and not every major experience follows the trajectory of a TV Movie of the Week. If you’ve seen Boyz N the Hood, you’ll know who dies at the end. CP