Had things worked out the way writer-director Kevin Smith planned, Matt Damon would not have appeared in Dogma, much less starred in it. The role of Loki -- an avenging angel who, along with fellow fallen angel Bartleby, discovers a way to escape an eternity of exile in Wisconsin -- was not written for the Oscar-winner. Smith had penned the role with only one person in mind: Jason Lee, who made his acting debut as the video-game-obsessed smart-ass Brodie in Smith's 1995 undervalued flop Mallrats (otherwise known as the director's homage to John Hughes, Porky's, and a lifetime spent in New Jersey). There is a reason Smith wrote the role with Lee in mind: The writer-director has long insisted that the former skateboard pro exists solely to deliver his dialogue -- usually, as though each word is being fired through a .44-magnum with an eight-inch barrel.
But a scheduling conflict forced Lee to turn down the part; he was in France, shooting the never-going-to-be-released-in-the-States Cuisine Americaine. At the time, it seemed a lousy career move -- and Lee's acting career was only, oh, 3 years old. But when filming on Dogma was pushed back to the spring of 1998, Lee was able to sign on, this time as Azrael, a former muse since sentenced to spend an eternity in hell for his failure to take sides in a battle between God and Lucifer. (No, really.)
Surprisingly, Lee seems almost gratified he didn't get the role of Loki; his reaction is unexpected, since Azrael, whose desire to escape from hell sets in motion Dogma's hell-or-high-water plot, is but a bit player among nearly a dozen others. But Lee explains it this way: If he had played Loki as Smith originally wrote the part, he would once again be saddled with the role of wisecracking sidekick, something he had done already in Mallrats and 1997's Chasing Amy (not to mention 1998's Kissing a Fool, his first starring role outside of his movies with Kevin Smith). No way he wanted the part. Not again.
"In Mallrats, I played the cynical wise-ass sidekick, and in Chasing Amy, it was different, but similar -- Banky, the friend who's pretty cynical who cuts people down and wises off all the time," Lee says. "This role, Azrael, I'm on my own." He chuckles softly. "I'm not anybody's sidekick. And everything is different, from the way I act to the mannerisms to the behavior and overall attitude. It was more satisfying I could do something different in a Kevin Smith movie and knowing that his fan base would see me in a different light. Had I played Loki, I would have played it similar to a Brodie or a Banky -- the guy who's complaining a lot and cutting people down and having that similar edge. And it would have had similar inflections and stuff."
The inflections. When Kevin Smith talks about the 28-year-old Lee, he never fails to mention the way Jason Lee delivers a line -- the way he "emphasizes the sardonic," as the writer-director likes to put it. Lee energizes any scene in which he appears: In Mallrats, he delivers each line as though it were the most important thing to come out of his or anyone else's mouth, as though each thought were his last. Little wonder that in his online making-of-Dogma diary, Smith insists Lee is among the few actors he wants to appear in every one of his movies. "Aw, man, that's awesome," Lee says. "If he writes it, I'll do it, ya know? But the way Brodie talks defines the character: the way he goes up, and the way he goes down."
In Mallrats -- which now exists on video and special-edition DVD as a cult fave -- Lee talks like someone too bored to tell a whole joke, so instead he simply offers up the punch line, whether discussing the reasons Lois Lane's womb couldn't handle Superman's super sperm, or delivering an extended monologue about group masturbation on an airplane seemingly doomed for disaster. Mallrats may have been Lee's first film, but he carried himself like someone who had been making movies for a lifetime. He swaggered like an old pro -- or, perhaps more to the point, like a pro skateboarder used to going a hundred miles an hour.
"Brodie's a big character -- he's loud and says it like it is -- but for Mallrats, I basically put myself in Kevin's hands," Lee says. "I started off on the right foot. I mean, I'm not an asshole anyway, but I didn't show up onset cocky: 'Oh, I'm an actor now, I'm gonna be famous, I'm in a big motion picture.' I was the new kid on the block, and I didn't want to take it for granted. So I tried to be on time, and I tried to ask as many questions as I could. If I didn't understand something -- a word, a relationship -- I would ask him to explain it. Because if you go into a scene with something on your mind, it's going to distract you from what you're supposed to be doing. I didn't want to jeopardize the performance, so I made sure to be on the ball and ask a lot of questions."
In some ways, Lee's second film with Smith, 1997's Chasing Amy, fleshed out Brodie. Only this time, instead of trying to help his best friend get back together with his girl, Lee's character, Banky, was trying to bust up his pal's love life. It's appropriate that once Lee disappears from Chasing Amy -- about a straight man who convinces his lesbian crush to switch sides (again, though he doesn't know it) -- the movie slows to a crawl. But little can top a scene featuring Banky discussing the drawbacks of going down on a chick with Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). It's like asking a minor-leaguer to drive in Mark McGwire.
Alyssa: "If you say the smell, so help me, I'll slug you."
Banky: "Not the smell. The smell is good. I'm talking about not being able to do it properly. And my mother brought me up to believe that if I can't do something right I shouldn't do it at all. Of course, my father told me she gave lousy head, but that's beside the point."
From there, Smith places the movie in the hands of Holden (Ben Affleck, who appears as Bartleby in Dogma). It was unfortunate, since Affleck, despite his best efforts, couldn't carry a movie if someone gave it to him with a handle. Lee becomes nothing more than a third wheel, discarded halfway through the movie -- only to reappear during an inexplicable and ludicrous finale that involves Holden kissing Banky square on the lips.
After Chasing Amy, Lee appeared in a string of films -- sometimes, only barely. It's surprising that he's even allowed to put the made-for-HBO film Weapons of Mass Distraction (1997) or Tony Scott's 1998 film Enemy of the State on his résumé, since he appears in both for about as long as it takes to load a new canister of film. And Kissing a Fool played like a big-screen sitcom -- which, given the casting of Friends' David Schwimmer, was probably the point. The movie opened around the same time it closed, and Lee was wasted, reduced to straight man in a laughless comedy.
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The same thing happened in writer-director Lawrence Kasdan's recently released Mumford, in which Lee has a small part as a millionaire boy genius who, at least, gets to show off his skateboarding ability. He will next appear in Cameron Crowe's still-untitled autobiographical film about a teenager sent by Rolling Stone to interview a superstar rock band -- for which Lee is, of course, the lead singer.
When watching Dogma, it's tempting to wonder what the film would have been like had Lee played Loki. He is in so many ways the opposite of Damon, who comes off as, at best, a cherubic street-tough. Lee's almost wasted, popping up here and there as an all-white-clad demon who sprouts horns and delivers long speeches on the downside of an eternity in hell, sprinkling in pop-culture references as he discourses long and hard on the Bible. ("I've seen way to many Bond movies to know that you never reveal all the details of your plan, no matter how close you may think you are to success," he says near the film's finale. "Suffice it to say, the Catholics have been even more helpful in ensuring my success than by just supplying the clean-slate archway." Of course they have.)
"Kevin wanted me to look at Azrael, and once I did, I thought, 'This should be interesting. I get long monologues, and I get to be really mean,'" Lee says. "Just knowing how different it was was exciting. It was almost like the beginning of working with Kevin, touching on new ground." Smith echoes Lee's sentiments by insisting, in his Dogma diary, that he had seen a side of Lee during filming he never knew existed.
"That's cool," Lee says, when told of Smith's assessment. "I think part of that comes from the confidence of having worked with him twice, then going off and working on other movies. You get better and better with each film you do; you get more and more confidence. I imagine now, working with Kevin would be even easier. It's just all in the experience."