So much time has passed since he released a halfway decent movie that it’s easy to forget Kevin Smith wasn’t always a glorified podcaster and persistent comic-convention ghoul. In the mid to late ‘90s, his original Jersey trilogy, while raggedy around the edges, were films full of potential and promise. As a director, Smith would be the first to say he was no strong visual stylist, but as a writer, his work possessed a lot of heart and wit and humanism. He was on an upward trajectory that implied a long tenured documenter of slices of life, a slacker-fi Éric Rohmer for geeks and ne’er-do-wells.

No film in his CV highlighted this quite like 1999’s Dogma, the apex of Smith’s evolution as a filmmaker. At the time, it was overshadowed by the religious protests against the very idea of the film, as well as the more sophomoric elements at the periphery of its marketing. Looking back now, it remains an ambitious outing for Smith, an exciting instance of his imagination exceeding his relative skill. It made his diehard fans and detractors alike believe that, in coming years, he would mature as a storyteller and truly make good on the promise of Clerks.

While taking place in the larger “View Askewniverse,” Dogma is the only of Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob starring flicks to expand beyond the limited scope of romantic stoner comedy, reaching into the realm of science fiction and fantasy to tell an epic genre piece about two wayward angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) trying to make their way back to Heaven. The duo plan to exploit a loophole in Catholic law that will get them back on the other side of the pearly gates but, unbeknownst to them, also unmake existence as we know it.

Using a mixture of Star Wars mythology structure and road-movie iconography, Smith lays out the journey of Bethany Sloane (a miscast but underrated Linda Fiorentino), a lapsed Catholic and abortion clinic counselor, charged with trekking from Illinois to New Jersey to stop the angels. Though the scene-to-scene action is the same kind of medium shot/close-up interior banter of Smith’s other films, the overall plot and world explored suggest a wider universe, one where it’s not so odd for Smith to be directing heavy-hitters like Alan Rickman, Salma Hayek and Chris Rock.

From a writing perspective, Smith is firing on all cylinders. Some of the film’s comedy is still dodgy, relies a little too heavily on long monologues and features far too much of the Golgothan, a demon from Hell literally made of shit, but it holds up better than one would expect. The narrative is essentially a delivery system for musings on the nature of faith in the modern world, with each character given space to wrestle with, or completely cast aside, their ideas of what God is or isn’t. That it functions as well as it does as an adventure feels like an accidental bonus.

Working with frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Robert Yeoman as cinematographer, Smith isn’t able to overcome his drawbacks as a visual storyteller, but he does create a movie that’s charming to behold and gives his characters space in the frame to breathe and interact. To put it bluntly, Dogma is cinematic the way a YouTube video with black letterboxed bars is—more so implying the presence of visual thought than executing it. But watching it again 20 years later, it’s hard not to imagine Smith writing films of this caliber for someone else to helm, or spending less time being self-deprecating about his filmmaking weaknesses on college campus speaking tours and more time actually working on his skills.

If anything, that wasted potential is what makes most of his output since Dogma so sad. Smith’s lack of confidence and the persistent critical drubbings he received on even his more entertaining films (Zack and Miri Make a Porno remains criminally underrated) led to a career dedicated to appeasing a small audience that is happy for more of the same, rather than challenging himself and growing beyond his limits. He’s crowdfunded experimental flicks and directed tons of television, but nothing released since has matched Dogma in heart or ambition.

He’s poised to return to the “Askewniverse” with an easy layup reboot of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but one wonders if dusting off the shelved, alleged post-9/11 Dogma sequel Smith once alluded to in interviews might not be a better attempt at a career second act. Sure, the chances for failure would be considerably higher, but unlike the safe route he’s currently taking, so too would be the reward.

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