Arts: God has taste as well as humour

`Dogma' tries hard to be madcap but only succeeds in committing the ultimate in cinematic blasphemy - it's just plain dull. By Anthony Quinn: DOGMA KEVIN SMITH (15) n MYSTERY MEN KINKA USHER (PG) n THE MUSIC FREELANCERS DENIS DERCOURT (PG) n MUPPETS FROM SPACE TIM HILL (U)
Kevin Smith's new film opens with a disclaimer, to the effect that what we are about to see is not intended as blasphemous - "God has a sense of humour", it adds. Yes, and presumably a sense of discrimination, too, which is why it's hard to imagine Him frittering away two hours in front of Dogma.

He may have been amused, none the less, to see the film pick up some free publicity Stateside after the Catholic League chose to condemn it; with enemies like that, what film-maker has any real need of a promotions budget?

Here's what they've been getting hot under the collar about. A pair of renegade angels, Loki and Bartleby (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), who've been banished for the last 2,000 years to Wisconsin, suddenly discover a loophole in Catholic dogma that will allow them to break back into heaven.

If they succeed, God will be proved wrong and the whole of existence negated, which could be inconvenient for those with holiday plans. A saviour of the universe is urgently required and, given that the film-makers probably couldn't afford Bruce Willis, up steps Linda Fiorentino as a troubled Catholic named Bethany, whose divine mission is to head off the two angels at a church in New Jersey.

Around this plot, which is plainly begging to be called "madcap", Smith assembles an all-star cast. Alan Rickman plays a gothic-pale emissary named Metatron; Chris Rock plays Rufus, who claims to be the 13th Apostle; and Selma Hayek is a muse named Serendipity, who claims to have had a hand in 19 of the 20 top-grossing films in Hollywood - the one she disavows is Home Alone.

Throw into the mix a couple of baseball-capped slackers (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith), a golf-mad cardinal (George Carlin) and the Divine Herself (Alanis Morissette) and you have a zany and determinedly irreverent take on Roman Catholic tradition. For example, that crazy cardinal is trying to substitute the icon of Christ on the cross with a statue of "Buddy Jesus", who winks and thumbs-up in a more worshipper-friendly fashion.

That Dogma is an absolute mess becomes clear after half an hour or so. That it's also stultifyingly dull is less pardonable, though its faultlines are easily traced back to Kevin Smith's earlier work. I wasn't a great fan of his indie hits Clerks and Chasing Amy, not so much because of their scratchy DIY awkwardness, as the complacent belief in the wittiness of their droning one-note monologues.

At least in Chasing Amy, Ben Affleck had one great speech about falling in love: in Dogma it's one dreary exposition after another, each noodling around some fine point of theology, each as interminable and unamusing as the last. It has the same relentless talkiness as Danny Boyle's A Life Less Ordinary - another film that is about earthbound angels - and with the same flailing inability to work up any comic momentum.

Smith has a foot in the big league, it seems, if the special effects and big-name performers are anything to go by. Yet his sense of humour remains defiantly small-time, a closed-off, sophomoric kind of jokiness that perhaps makes him and three of his friends crack up: I can't remember a movie in which so many words have been expended to such little comic purpose.

I laughed once, when Chris Rock's jiving black apostle casually mentions his close personal acquaintance with Christ: "Know him? Nigger still owes me 12 dollars." It sounds like a line of Chris Rock's rather than Kevin Smith's, but I was grateful for anything by that stage.

Is Dogma blasphemous? Hardly. It might have been more interesting if it were. The only gods Kevin Smith has offended are the ones who preside over comedy and drama.

Mystery Men, a skit on the comic-book adventure fantasy, also features a top-drawer cast - but none of Dogma's pretensions, thank God. William H Macy, Ben Stiller and Hank Azaria play a trio of crime-fighters with some not-so-special powers: Macy wields a shovel, Azaria throws cutlery and Stiller, as "Mr Furious", gets very angry.

When Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), Champion City's leading superhero, is kidnapped by arch-villain Casanova Frankensein (Geoffrey Rush), the Mystery Men recruit an odd weapons inventor (Tom Waits) with a view to mounting their own heroic rescue operation.

Commercials director Kinka Usher moves it along agreeably enough, though the film suffers in trying to please two audiences: it's not quite funny or sly enough to hook adults, and it's not violent enough to appeal to the mall mob. It's also about half an hour too long.

The strength of the cast Usher has corralled is astonishing - Lena Olin, Janeane Garofalo, Claire Forlani, Eddie Izzard also figure - but how one wishes there had been a smarter script to serve them.

Formerly a violist and teacher at the Strasbourg Conservatory, writer- director Denis Dercourt conducts The Music Freelancers, a modest ensemble comedy about a bunch of chamber musicians preparing for a New Year's Eve concert in a country chateau. Pierre Lacan plays Roberto, double-bass player and de facto leader, who must whip his laggardly musicians into shape with the help of legendary Austrian baton-meister Svarowski (Henri Garcin).

The various scrapes and shenanigans Roberto and co involve themselves in are mildly diverting, and passably amusing, but I'll wager you'll have forgotten all about them next day. That's not a crime: it's just a risk a movie runs when it's as genteel and ingratiating as this.

And still, The Muppets. A friend of mine insists that ex-Newcastle manager and TV pundit Ruud Gullit is actually a Muppet, he just doesn't know it yet... come to think of it, he is out of a job. In the meantime, fans must be content with Muppets From Space, in which Gonzo gets mysterious messages in his breakfast cereal which are telling him that he is not of this world. Intimations of his extraterrestrial nature reach government agent Jeffrey Tambor - yes, it's Hank from Larry Sanders - threatening Gonzo's freedom and rousing his friends to launch a rescue mission.

Is it just me, or was this stuff much funnier on the telly 20 years back? I assume these once super-furry animals still have a constituency somewhere. But its members' loyalty will be sorely tested by this paltry spin-off.