As we waited for Religulous to start–my wife had confiscated my iPod touch for her own purposes–I read an article in The Onion about the coming election. The sixty million people voting for one candidate will not talk to any of the sixty million people who are voting for the other candidate. That–along with a couple George Carlin jokes I’ll save for later–sums up the Religulous experience. It’s very funny, but it’s preaching to the choir. The whole point Maher eventually gets to is to rile up his choir so they’re actually audible (this choir being the people who don’t think thermonuclear war to bring about armageddon is a good idea–in other words, people who aren’t Kirk Cameron fans).
But Religulous starts out with much loftier ambitions. The film starts as Maher somewhat listless floundering through his own experiences–as a half Jew, half Catholic–with religion. He brings his mother and sister out (Maher obviously inherited a lot from his mother) and talks to them about his upbringing. It’s all very searching–especially when Maher ends up in a “truckers’ chapel” asking questions about Jesus. The truckers are respectful of Maher, even though he is making them appear simple. After this sequence is done, he even comments on how the religion makes the nicest people seemingly babble incoherently (I’m paraphrasing).
The tone quickly changes though, while Maher interviewing some more Christian figures–subtitles appear on screen to point out their mistakes–including a U.S. senator (a Democrat, presumably because no Republicans would talk to him), an amusement park Jesus and an “ex-gay” pastor. It’s all very funny, but it’s not really telling anyone anything they don’t know. Maher’s personal search for answers has ended. Now it’s just about silly religious figures. Maher never handles the subject with the tenderness Aaron Sorkin does in “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” for instance.
There’s great stuff–I never knew Jesus was a remake of the Egyptian God Horus or the Mormon thing about God living on some planet somewhere (very “Star Trek”). There’s some funny Scientology stuff, but at the halfway point, Maher turns his focus entirely on the Middle East. He talks to an anti-Zionist Jew, a bunch of Muslims and concludes the world’s going to end if the atheists, agnostics, and non-nutso faithful don’t start standing up for sanity.
George Carlin already “told” Religulous in a couple jokes. First, he was Catholic until he “reached the age of reason.” And second, “Certain groups of people – Muslim fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, and just plain guys from Montana – are going to continue to make life… very interesting for a long, long time.” Maher’s just packaging those ideas in a feature-length effort. I’m wary to even call it a documentary, since it’s certainly propaganda. He has his favorites (the Catholics come off very well and Zionist Jews are not interviewed). He ends the film with fear-mongering. There’s a point to the film and it isn’t discovery, it’s revelation. Except Maher’s just revealing fundamentalists are nutty–the guy from the Human Genome Project comes off about as well as Charlton Heston did in Bowling for Columbine–and his audience already knows they’re nutty. It’s a pageant.
The most interesting thing about Religulous isn’t even a part of the film–the process. It’s barely addressed how Maher’s making this documentary, but given how the conclusion he reaches seems to be a result of the process… it would have been insightful.
Directed by Larry Charles; written by Bill Maher; director of photography, Anthony Hardwick; edited by Jeff Groth, Christian Kinnard and Jeffrey M. Werner; produced by Jonah Smith, Palmer West and Maher; released by Lionsgate.