1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #4: "Old Friends"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 12, 1999

Jay & Silent Bob and Gregory. Those names may not be destined to go down in the annals of cinematic history, but for fans of Kevin Smith's New Jersey Trilogy (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy) and Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl, they are as unforgettable as Rick & Ilsa and Charles Foster Kane. These characters are back in films making their North American premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival - Jay & Silent Bob in Smith's controversial Dogma and Gregory in Forsyth's Gregory's Two Girls.

I wish I could say both returns are triumphs. Frankly, however, neither film lived up to expectations, although Dogma, which comes accompanied with an avalanche of publicity, is the bigger disappointment. If his short resume is anything to go by, Smith may have fallen into a pattern where he alternates between good films (Clerks, Chasing Amy) and mediocre ones (Mallrats, Dogma). Curiously, and perhaps not coincidentally, on the two occasions when Smith has been given something resembling a budget to work with, the results have not been inspired. But, when scraping to get by, he has created two memorable products.

Dogma is being denounced by the Catholic League (sight unseen). One wonders why these people don't have anything better to do with their time than harass filmmakers. Yes, the movie does take a few potshots at Catholicism. The most obvious occurs near the beginning, when George Carlin, cast as a cardinal, announces a new "Catholicism - Wow!" campaign designed to re-invigorate the religion. The crucifix is being retired because it's a depressing image. Christ is to be seen as a booster, so the new icon will be the "Buddy Christ" - a smiling, winking Jesus giving everyone the thumbs-up. But in examining Catholicism's role in the modern world, Smith doesn't just crack jokes and offer mockery; he has several serious comments to make about the religion under the auspices of which he was raised. On one occasion, a character makes the penetrating comment that too many Catholics "don't celebrate your faith; you mourn it."

Like the more scathing and incisive Monty Python's The Life of Brian, Dogma isn't as much anti-God as it is anti-organized religion. In many ways, this is a reverent motion picture, and it's clear that Smith has an excellent grasp on the material he's making fun of. Roger Ebert has written that perhaps a catechism should be issued to non-Catholics before seeing this film, but I think he overstates how deep into Catholic dogma the movie delves. I don't think the uninitiated will be left in the dark, although they may miss one or two finer points.

The problems with Dogma are that it's uneven, overlong, and occasionally uninteresting. To be fair, there are times when it's positively brilliant, and some of the humor is hilarious (as we have come to expect from Kevin Smith), but, in attempting to extend his range as a director, Smith may have bitten off more than he can chew. Dogma is described as a comedic fantasy, but when it gets bogged down in the comic book-style fantasy elements, it grows tiresome. The film is about two angels, Loki (Matthew Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who have been cast out of heaven for past misdeeds but have found a way back in using a loophole in Catholic dogma. However, since their return would prove God to be fallible, it would unmake reality. So it's up to a woman named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), the "Last Zion," to stop them and save the world. She's not alone in her task - assisting her are Metatron (Alan Rickman), the voice of the Lord; Rufus (Chris Rock), Christ's ignored 13th apostle; Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a muse-turned-stripper; and the irrepressible duo of Jay & Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith).

The plot is only sporadically involving, and there are long stretches when the humor dries up almost completely. This worked in Smith's previous endeavor, Chasing Amy, when the characters were vivid and the drama compelling, but not here. Dogma is more noteworthy for the controversy it is causing outside of theaters than for its actual content. Hopefully, Lion's Gate Films (which just bought the distribution rights from Disney-owned Miramax) isn't hoping for a big score at the box office.

Then there's Gregory's long overdue return, which isn't nearly as high-profile as Jay & Silent Bob's. In 1980, Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth brought the world Gregory's Girl, a delightful romantic comedy about a schoolboy who developed a crush on a female soccer player and the convolutions he underwent to woo her. 19 years later, Gregory (once again played by John Gordon Sinclair, whose looks and mannerisms now resemble those of Tom Hanks) is back at his old school, teaching English. And this time around, as the title suggests, he has two girls to worry about. One is his fellow teacher, Bel (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who has enjoyed an eight-year platonic friendship with Greg, but wants more and isn't shy about letting him know. The other is one of his students, the fiery Frances (newcomer Carly McKinnon), whose political activism matches Greg's and whose face and body find their way into his dreams and fantasies.

When Gregory's Two Girls stays small, focusing on the lead character and his relationships with others, it echoes the charm of its predecessor. Unfortunately, Forsyth has a larger agenda - that of condemning worldwide political and social injustice, and this element of Gregory's Two Girls doesn't work as effectively. Indeed, few would argue with the writer/director's point that average men and women must struggle against the system when its goals are dishonorable, but this aspect of the film (which is poorly developed and feels out of place) gets in the way of the simple pleasure of spending more time with Gregory. He's an interesting enough character on his own - Forsyth's pursuit of a political angle only fragments and prolongs the film.

That being said, Gregory's Two Girls boasts several laugh-aloud comic sequences, including a brilliant segment in which Greg stumbles over attempts to explain his relationship with Frances in front of two police officers, the school principal, and the girl's mother. His rambling dissertation, which involves high ideals and "badgers", culminates with an "Olympic slip of the tongue." Gregory may be two decades older, but he's still the same Gregory. One could make a solid argument that of the two films discussed here, Gregory's Two Girls is not only the stronger, but the funnier.

Every film festival has a handful of "hot" screenings - movies that are sold out well in advance and for which shut-out film goers stand in waiting lines for hours to get a chance at the few extra tickets released at showtime. Dogma is such a film, and its advance hype may have worked against it. Although the film and its director received a warm welcome, the pre-screening electricity had evaporated by the time the end credits rolled. Gregory's Two Girls, not handicapped by grandiose expectations, generated a more positive (although not entirely enthusiastic) response. This was a day in Toronto when the return of a few old friends failed to offer more than a few incidental pleasures.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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