“Religulous” – Nothing Sacred – 3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic 

It’s no secret that a good portion of comedian Bill Maher’s career has been devoted to questioning the world of spiritualism, from debunking obvious scam artists to challenging the very nature of the First Estate itself. And now, directed by Larry Charles, he stars in “Religulous,” his own freestyle documentary devoted to that cause.

This is funny stuff, its demystifying thoughts a raucously bittersweet deconstruction of nearly everything the so-called civilized world has come to believe…all in a miraculous one hour and forty-one minutes. Indeed, he uses extreme examples, collecting a rogue’s gallery of real-life, bizarre characters to make his point shocking as well as entertaining.

Yet underneath all the kidding, the grim undertow pulls at us. We know how powerful organized religion is, the countless lives it has claimed ever since Oog and Boog disagreed on which G-d to worship. Political leaders use it. Marx knew his communism couldn’t work if it had to compete with faith and conviction.

Because, truth be told, we’re not all sure. Awaiting the results of medical tests, it’s akin to the adage that there are no atheists in a foxhole. “Oh, G-d, let the tests be negative and I’ll never ever again charge for a car repair I didn’t perform.” Culturally ingrained or not, the idea of recourse is comforting. Being truly alone is alien, unthinkable.

Perhaps that’s one reason why Maher, who wrote the script, never out and out says he’s an atheist. Rather, in going nose-to-nose with those whom he gleefully portrays as zealots and charlatans, the comic proclaims he simply does not know, and that what amazes him most is the blind certitude of his motley targets. 

In fact, as proof that he is an equal opportunity blasphemer and heretic, he exults in casting a group of atheists in an inflexible light much like that occupied by their righteously indignant adversaries. What’s really stuck in his craw is that unholy alliance between intolerance and deceit.

However, unlike the love-hate diatribes filmmaker Kevin Smith (“Dogma”) indulges via his collisions with the Catholic Church, Bill Maher’s stance is unsentimental. As a point of disclosure, he informs he was raised Catholic—Dad’s religion—until he was thirteen, and intersperses humorous chats about it with his Jewish Mom.

But while the Cornell graduate astutely uses humor to make some rather intelligent points, “Religulous” is popular entertainment first and an anti-religion monograph second. What’s more, the seemingly random assay of numerous clergymen is really a pick and choose affair, edited to make the author’s droll points.

Although some rather well credentialed folks of the cloth are interviewed, none are particularly great debaters. Furthermore, not a one gets the last word. Running captions below the picture whilst his subjects pontificate, Maher will contradictorily editorialize and point out blatant lies with things like, “Nowhere in the Bible does it say that.”  

Still, there is a perception of evenhandedness. So extreme are some of his examples that, more often than not, Maher needs only to reel out enough rope for his dogmatists to hang themselves. Then again, the pile on the cutting floor might tell a totally different tale.

Director Larry Charles, who previously coxswained the inflammatorily hilarious “Borat” (2006) to a pitch of unabashed, liberal ecstasy, argues with the skill of a new age Daniel Webster. And while borrowing familiar tricks from Michael Moore (“Sicko”), his formula possesses its very own hypocrite/fraud trap.

Let’s face it. Outlandishness sells…both for those who perpetrate rip-offs in the name of divinity and for those who would expose them. An amusement park-like venue where Biblical sagas are enacted can’t help but seem sacrilegious. A segment with a Hispanic, bling-attired preacher who claims to be the Messiah blows you out of the holy water.

Then there’s the Vatican priest from America, interviewed in front of the building from whence Maher was just ejected. Sporting a hearty, clucking laugh, the jovial fellow has no compunction about discounting much doctrine and referring to Biblical tales as just “stories.”  Muslim and Jewish representatives receive similar goings-over as well.

Particularly mind-blowing is an interview with the Holocaust-denying rabbi who cozied up with Iran’s Ahmadinejad; a Jew for Jesus who owns a religious article store, and a creationist U.S. Senator whose lack of scriptural knowledge earns him the longest stream of embarrassingly corrective subtitles. It makes for dead serious fun, if you’re unbiased.

The common thread in all of this muckraking isn’t whether or not there’s a G-d, but rather our free speech right to question those claiming to be Her sole agent. Pity is, since most who will decry “Religulous” will do so because they’ve been told it’s bad, and not because they’ve seen it, Maher is ostensibly preaching to the choir. And that’s a real sin.

“Religulous,” rated R, is a Lionsgate release directed by Larry Charles and stars Bill Maher, Father Reginald Foster and Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss. Running time: 101 minutes


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