By Gannett News Service
The central question raised in “Religulous,” comedian Bill Maher’s examination of religion, is as much one of definition as it is of faith.
In fact, in Maher’s view there’s no question about the latter – his belief system is summed up in three words: I don’t know. Inspired by that premise, Maher and director Larry Charles travel the globe, speaking to true believers of various stripes, a wink and a nod always at the ready.
But what is “Religulous,” exactly? Is it a documentary? Is it journalism? Is it a one-sided screed? Maybe, no and yes.
Whatever it is, it’s really funny and well made. Charles, a “Seinfeld” veteran who also directed “Borat,” is both creative and fearless, which makes him invaluable here – in his hands, Maher comes off, for the most part, as far less arrogant than he sometimes does. Instead, he seems to genuinely want to ask questions about the sometimes contradictory nature of religion and faith, even if he often seems to have come up with his own answers already.
Maher’s father was Catholic and his mother Jewish; he was raised Catholic. He interviews his mother and sister (his mother died after filming) and learns that his father may have left the church because his parents practiced birth control.
He drops in on various people: truck drivers in a small chapel in North Carolina, a priest outside the Vatican (from which Maher gets kicked out), a Holy Land theme park and a museum devoted to Creationism.
There’s also a chat with a stoner in Amsterdam who has created a religion based on marijuana, a formerly gay minister who changed his sexual orientation and a man who claims to be a direct descendent of Jesus, selling himself as the Second Coming.
Maher also sits down with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), questioning his evangelical beliefs. Asked how he reconciles them intellectually, Pryor utters the quote of the film: “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate.”
Charles uses clips from biblical films and subtitles to further lampoon those on the other side of the interview. Heavy-handed, yes, but sometimes monstrously funny.
Maher is clearly working from a specific point of view. Nothing wrong with that – those who disagree with him are welcome to make their own film (and in some ways already have, with the Ben Stein-hosted “Expelled”).
But one comes away from “Religulous” wishing that Maher had included a few more reasonable people, like the Catholic priest who is also an astronomer, and has no problem reconciling faith and science (he’s included to help ridicule Creationism). Instead, Maher and Charles spend the bulk of the film poking holes in the beliefs of people who operate on the fringe of religion, some odd and some just plain crazy. It’s entertaining, but it’s also too easy, like shooting fish in a barrel. Or, in this case, preaching to the choir.
As with any argument about faith, there is an inherent contradiction at work here, emphasized by the ending, in which Maher gets serious in his takedown of organized religion, warning believers to “grow up or die.” He has spent the film ridiculing those who are absolute in their beliefs, yet ends up just as absolute in his own.
It’s an odd way to end the movie. Maher is a comedian, after all, not a theologian. And he’s already made his point several times over; this is just overkill. In “Religulous,” the way Maher’s stacked the deck with straw man after straw man, religion doesn’t have a prayer.
Rated: R for some language and sexual material. 2 stars out of 4.