Film review by: Witney Seibold
Poor guy shot himself in the foot.
“Religulous” may serve as a bracing breath of fresh air to the poor young atheists living the Bible Belt. Those poor college kids who are constantly being told that The Bible is the One True Way to live, and have already become hooked on Lucretius or Nietzsche, probably share a similar sense of disgust at all organized religion held by Bill Maher, the film’s creator/narrator. Maher, to put it politely, has a very dim view of organized religion. He feels that, now that the ability to end the world has been wrested from the hands of God, and now rests in the hands of political leaders with free access to nuclear arsenals, perhaps the apocalyptic thinking that often goes hand-in-hand with said politician’s religion of choice (either Fundamentalist Christianity or Fundamentalist Islam) should not be a good mode of thinking any longer. Maher puts it bluntly in a film-end rant: “It’s time to grow up, or die.”
Maher’s concerns, are, of course, valid. Especially in light of extreme Muslim terrorist actions, and extreme language from our own (thankfully soon out-of-office), Bible-thumping president. Maher puts it to us that all religious thinking is dangerous, and scientific observation and reason are the only thing that can save us. It’s an old argument, but compellingly (if not well-) put forth by “Religulous.”
“Religulous” is imminently watchable. Maher, armed with a healthy cynicism, a willingness to badger, and a shit-eating-grin that is simultaneously smarmy and charming, approaches some of the wackiest religious kooks in the world with an uncompromising, confrontation attitude, prepares to tear down every one of their beliefs. While he does employ some bullying tactics, the end result is actually one of the funnier films I’ve seen this year. Part of the humor comes from the truly odd behavior of the true believers (a tactic used by the film’s director Larry Charles in his previous film “Borat”), and the rest comes from Maher’s irreverent jabs and dismissive scoffs. I’m fascinated by some of the bizarre Jesus-fan-club Christian cults in Middle America (I even subscribe to Jack T. Chick’s comicbook tract delivery service), so I laughed heartily at some of what Maher was skewering.
Sadly, as the thesis Maher intended it to be, “Religulous” is very weak. Maher does not have debates with many theologians, scholars, or anyone who has earnestly studied the history and historical interpretations of any of the holy texts. He even ignores scholars like Asimov or Dawkins who would have helped his argument. Instead, Maher chooses to go after some of the easiest targets in the world’s religious landscape. He talks to employees in a Jesus-themed theme park. He talks to a man who claims to be the reincarnation/descendant of Jesus. He interviews a man who works in one of those peaceful Jesus tchotchke shops. He interviews a stoner who is head of a cannabis ministry. He talks to Muslims who have not read the Koran. Anyone who has any insight (like a Vatican priest who casually dismisses a lot of the more rigid and popular Catholic dogma) is cut away from quickly.
Maher interrupts, cuts in with snarky subtitles, edits to his whims. He, in short, does not play fair with his barrel of fish. All of this is very funny, but, as I said, is just shooting himself in the foot. He also, very suspiciously, does not have any interviews with Buddhists or Hindus. I wish he had tracked down Jack Chick himself. Or, better yet, the Rev. Ivan Stang of the Church of the SubGenuis. Those conversations would have been amazing.
Maher does at least have the good taste to turn the cameras on himself; he talks about being raised by a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, and how religion never really entered his life in any sort of meaningful way. “Jesus was not a presence in my childhood,” he says, “Superman was a presence in my childhood.” He also says that he would have worshipped any deity that let him jerk off. Maher also interviews his Jewish mother about religion, and she has some surprisingly pragmatic things to say.
The worst part of “Relogulous” comes at the end when Maher abruptly drops all pretenses of humor, and gives a long, vitriolic sermon on the dangers of religious thinking. He is no longer ribbing the audience, but stabbing us with sharpened kitting needles. Without any subtle ways of making his point anymore, he falls back on a form preachy ranting that he had previously been attacking. Whether you’re a believer or not, it’s a tough to watch the end a comedy with the message that we’re all going to die soon.
So, in short, “Religulous” is a nice outlet for proto-intellectual atheists, it’s incredibly funny, but, thanks to its easy targets, cheap tactics, and a preachy film-end rant, falls a short of its intended impact.
But it’s still funny.