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  Religulous

Featuring: Bill Maher, Tal Bachman, Larry Charles, Steve Burg, Andrew Newburg

Directed by: Larry Charles

Produced by: Bill Maher, Jonah Smith, Palmer West

Written by: Bill Maher

Distributor: Lionsgate

 

     Unlike the majority of my fellow conservatives, I think Bill Maher is a very funny guy even though I rarely agree with him on political issues. Maher is observant in his sense of humor and has impeccable comedic timing, making his satire enjoyable if utterly ridiculous. Heís every bit himself in his new one-man documentary Religulous, too, finding goofy subjects to poke fun of in equally goofy ways. During the course of the film, Maher speaks with a Jesus-impersonator at a religious theme park who performs with a Styrofoam crucifix affixed to his back, a man who believes heís the second-coming of Christ, and more than a few blind followers of Evangelicalism Ė all of them blinded by religion. These conversations are bitingly funny and, yes, very creepy. But Religulous is also not a good movie, mainly because of Maher, who is consumed by his overzealous need to push an agenda. Instead of making a movie that satirized those who take religion too literally or do absurd things with their faith, Maher in typical fashion decided to use Religulous as a means of alienating anybody who believes in anything.

 

     Maher essentially believes that all religion is bad, an idea that might have actually made for a compelling thesis if it were delivered with more sense than that found in the famous political-comedianís ho-hum reasoning here. His basic view, presented early on in the film, is that religion is an ultimate evil because it has led to several violent conflicts: the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, et cetera. But does Maher ever look at the benefits of organized religion? Of course not, because there is no way to measure how many lives (and souls) religious institutions have saved and he can get away with blindly stating that happy believers could just as well be happy non-believers. (Of course, one could develop a concrete measurement of all those unborn babies saved from abortions by mothersí belief in religious tenets, but Maher would never consider that because abortion so isnít murder.) Religulous never fully recognizes its one-sidedness, but itís rather unfathomable that Maher didnít selectively choose not to show the good elements of faith. He might publically deny them, but being a smart guy he must realize deep down that they exist.

 

     Whatís more troubling than Religulousí general ignorance regarding the positive effects of religion is its presentation of the negative ones. Maher essentially reaches a conclusion that morally equates the beliefs of his Jesus impersonator with those of Islamic extremists because, after all, theyíre both just blinded by faith, right? The film makes this implication through its structure: director Larry Charles (Borat) cuts to overriding discussions of religion and historical footage of its misgivings, only to then show Maherís interviews with the cast of looneys he dug up while filming. The resulting impression is that Maherís subjects function as his examples of the same sort of fanaticism as that practiced by the true extremists covered in broader passages of the movie (Hitler, bin Laden, and company). This sense of equivalency, whether fully intended or not (I truly doubt that Maher would consciously make such comparisons), casts an offensive tone upon the whole picture. Maherís absurd argument escalates to a point at which he basically deems even the most casual followers of religion to be idiots.

 

     And yet, for all its mindless assertions, the movie is still funny Ė not because of Maherís commentary itself, but because of the way Maher interacts with his subjects. (For example, a certain comparison Maher draws between writing to Santa Claus and praying to God isnít funny because of its demeaning tone, but results in a hilarious interchange between Maher and a devout Christian.) Itís a shame that the picture generalizes so liberally when it comes to religion on the whole because Maherís interviews highlight the unique scariness of fanaticism in ways that are far more effective than those employed by the overdramatic 2006 documentary Jesus Camp. Maherís humorously satirical approach couldíve come across as perfectly pointed and unique in depicting the dangers of immoderation of belief, but instead it proves reckless because his absence of belief is equally as immoderate. (Kudos to Maher, however, for treating all religions with the same condescending tone and not just fixating on the easy scapegoat of a demon that is Christianity.) Instead of enduring Maherís skewed preaching in Religulous, why not take a weekend trip to Florida and watch a theme-park Jesus for yourself? Youíll return having had just as many laughs and discovered five times the insight than that found in this blatant film effort.

 

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 10.1.2008

Screened on: 9.26.2008 at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas in San Diego, CA.

 

Religulous is rated R and runs 101 minutes.


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