Bill Maher has never befriended religion. In fact, widespread subscription to organized faith infuriates him, making his well-read, incredibly researched mind explode with incredulity. To Maher, religion is poison, rotting humanity from the inside with wild promises of heavenly reassurance contrasting a world of direct menace. Trying to make some sense out of the intangible logic of faith, Maher hits the road, roaming all over the globe to question believers on just why they choose to believe.
Recruiting Larry Charles ("Borat") for directorial inspiration, Maher positions "Religulous" as a comedy first, an atheist recruitment device second, and a hard-charging news piece third. That screwy order of purpose is exactly why the picture is such a puzzling effort. Maher has so much to say with this movie, but the execution resembles shotgun blasts of acid, intelligence, and disdain, never gelling into a persuasive whole in the same reflective manner Maher imagines it will.
Raised Catholic despite is half-Jewish heritage, Maher learned to question biblical teachings at an early age. Using religiously slanted material in his stand-up act over the past few decades, Maher, when he made the transition from goofy comic to flame-throwing talk show host, became one of the few voices to actively question the legitimacy of belief. "Religulous" is essentially Maher standing up for the silent minority, trusting his exploits will encourage more to challenge the fanged spiritual machine and return some sanity to the world. But first, Maher wants to have some fun.
The majority of "Religulous" is Maher, armed with a camera crew and Charles, heading to holy hot spots to interview those on both sides of the devout fence. With runs to the Vatican (he's quickly kicked out), Amsterdam (to the site where director Theo van Gogh was stabbed by Islamic extremists), Israel, and even to Orlando, Florida to interview "Jesus" (at the extraordinarily tasteless Holy Land Experience theme park), Maher tries to stuff as much viewpoints into the film as he can from every corner of the globe.
Most of the ammo is reserved for Christianity, and how its followers are able to swallow every last bit of man-made invention in the name of "miracles" and enduring feelings of illumination. Talking to a group of church-going truckers, an organization that specializes in turning homosexuals into Christ-loving heteros, and meeting with a few blinged-out preachers, Maher challenges his subjects the only way he knows how: through blunt mockery. Here's where the foundation cracks on "Religulous."
Maher is a clever fellow with a very high opinion of himself, but Charles makes him and the movie all too easy to dismiss. Instead of confrontations that shatter myths and raise consciousness, "Religulous" goes for cheap laughs, manipulating footage to make the participants resemble complete boobs (granted, most of these people are irrationally extreme), going so far as to add comedic text to the screen to amplify the derision. It's a childish and fraudulent way to make a point, and doesn't do the picture any favors in the legitimacy department. Certainly Maher is preaching to the converted with his caustic perspective, but that doesn't excuse the flagrant creative stitches left behind to make worthless points. With Borat, the idea of an idiot speaking to idiots had ideal symmetry. Here, Charles is "creating" comedy to underline Maher's incendiary position, and it leaves the film with a sour taste.
Maher makes perfect cinema when directly challenging the intelligence of the interview subjects, revealing with expected horror that most who trust their lives to a higher power don't really understand the layers of outrageous mythology it takes to create a religion, instead blindly trusting the unknown, which often entails fantastical stories of intolerance, talking animals, and absurd miracles to keep minds comfortably numb. Emphasizing his point further, Maher surveys Scientology and Mormonism with particular rancor.
Maher is an irredeemable prick, but he has the sense to pump the brakes around Islam, treading carefully with religious leader interrogations and Western Wall tour guides. Salient points are made about this furiously hot-potato faith, but Maher is noticeably outgunned, challenging the history of Islamic bloodshed from behind the comfort of news clips and sheepish concessions. The way the Middle East rumbles these days, how could anyone blame him?
The finale of "Religulous" returns Maher to a place of wrath, pausing the jokes to condemn religion outright and confront those who are guided solely on faith. Again, Maher's points are significant, defiant, and insightful, but his delivery is too condescending to make a profound impression. Ideally, "Religulous" is the type of film to be sent off into the world to crack open a few eyes and change some lives. In reality, only those patient with Maher and already free of devotion will be receptive to the message. It's a missed opportunity.
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