Wednesday, October 1, 2008

See It, Despite Its Title....

Directed by Larry Charles
Starring Bill Maher
Opens October 1, 2008

Maher at the Vatican
(courtesy LionsGate)
Comedian Bill Maher is unafraid to tackle big subjects, whatever the response of his detractors may be. After September 11, he said on his Politically Incorrect talk show that the suicide bombers were many things, but cowardly was not one of them–instead, the U.S. was cowardly to bomb Afghan targets from miles above. He was promptly censured by Bush spokesman Ari Fleisher, then cancelled by a nervous ABC network. On his current HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher, he takes on sacred cows of all stripes, mostly in the political realm, but also in the religious world, which led to the movie Religulous.

Maher has no patience for religion of any sort; he refuses to concede all the good that right-thinking and believing people have done for poorer, less fortunate people throughout the ages. He does have a point: the Crusades killed millions, anti-Semitic Nazis killed millions, and now religious fundamentalists are causing the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. So Religulous is Maher’s hard-hitting, biased but uproarious response to the ridiculousness of religion in both our lives and the world.

The title is awful–I guess it’s a play on “ridiculous,” which neither reads nor sounds humorous, if that was Maher’s intent–and the movie is similar in approach to Michael Moore, as Maher visits different areas around the globe, from the U.S. to Amsterdam to London to the Holy Land, to not so much find out what makes religious people tick in the 21st century, but to ridicule their foolishness for believing the nonsensical fairy tales that constitute the core of the world’s major religions.

I laughed a lot throughout Religulous, and Maher and director Larry Charles make very astute points about the absurdity of the entire religious experience; for example, when they visit The Holy Land Experience—an actual sort-of-amusement park in Orlando where visitors can (among other things) watch re-enactments of events in Jesus’ life—the camera pans upward to catch a plane flying overhead as the actor playing Christ is being “nailed” to the cross. Although I’m sure that wasn’t the intent, I thought of the suicide planes on September 11, which made an already creepy scene even more unsettling.

Far more intelligent than most comedians, Maher knows how to interview people with opposing viewpoints, even when he is baiting them. The most commonsensical people in the film are two American priests in Rome–the Vatican’s astronomer and the Senior Vatican Scholar–who explode the creationist myth and fundamentalist Christian beliefs with some pointed, cutting comments.

But–and it’s a big but–Maher’s smugness sometimes sabotages his own cause. On his TV show, he has a nasty habit of laughing at his own jokes, and that feeling permeates much of Religulous, where there are cheap laughs galore. The cutesy editing includes snippets of old movies and TV shows to sardonically comment on the loony ideas and behavior of those Maher is interviewing (we see the likes of Pacino in Scarface, as well as Blazing Saddles, The Flintstones, Planet of the Apes, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and even Superbad), while titles appear onscreen in a similarly mocking fashion (although The Colbert Report does this better with its “The Word” segment). Finally, pop songs from “The Seeker” to “Walk Like an Egyptian” to “Jesus Is Just All Right” further the smart-ass commentary throughout the movie.

Naturally, Religulous will never be seen by those whom Maher is targeting—which is the vast majority of the world population that’s Christian, Jew, Muslim or (in a funny if unnecessary tangent) Scientologist—but he doesn’t really care, ending the movie with a decidedly serious rant about impending Armageddon that shows how deeply felt his convictions on this subject are, making Religulous an antidote to the burgeoning Left Behind and creationist crowd.

Originally posted on

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