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Religulous (Larry Charles, 2008)


     Coming off as an agnostic’s call to arms, Larry Charles’ Religulous could have just easily have been called “Incredulous”. This documentary features comedian and television personality Bill Maher as an agent of doubt, talking with a series of religious figureheads in an attempt to discover what justifies their devotion. Citing a statistic which reports that 16% of Americans are adamantly non-religious, Maher declares this group the last great, untapped minority in our country, and posits himself as their spokesperson. The opening moments of Religulous suggest that Maher chose to make this documentary partially out of a “dissonance” that he felt when questioning why otherwise rational people would embrace religious faith. He starts this search at home, recounting his childhood in his own split-faith household, and interviewing his mother about his family’s theological lapses. It’s apparent that this setup is a bit of a dupe, though, as soon as Maher starts interviewing religious folks who he’s not related to. This isn’t a film borne out of a crisis of faith, but rather from a bout of political fervor. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with allowing the devout the opportunity to make fools of themselves to win favor, there’s something deceptive about Maher’s bait and switch.


     Maher’s thesis question, which broadly asks “How can they be so dumb?” is less offensive than it might initially seem, since the film gives a wide array of religious authority figures ample opportunity to defend themselves, and they generally fail miserably. In his interactions with his interview subjects, Maher doesn’t insult so much as he poses obvious questions that frustrate. Considering that these organizations have a mandate to proselytize, you’d think they’d have less terrible public relations representatives, but their ineptitude at challenging even the most basic forms of dissent provides quite a few laughs. As one would expect in a documentary with comic aspirations, extremes are generally targeted, and throughout the course of the movie Maher sets his sights on easy targets such as televangelism, a Christian amusement park in Florida, a chapel for truck drivers in North Carolina, technological loopholes to make the Jewish Sabbath more convenient, and a man who purports that he is the second coming of Jesus. For a while, Religulous seems like it is only trying to be good, insubstantial fun. Its unstructured sequences don’t work very hard to convince the audience of anything, and the film’s attacks generally feel good natured. Maher’s observations are so snarky and flippant that they couldn’t possibly be designed to sway believers. In the last third of the film, though, Religulous questions whether or not there exists an Islamic tendency toward violence, resulting in an extended sequence that not only is not enlightening, but also isn’t very funny.


     Religulous is no model for journalistic excellence, but it probably needn’t be.  Maher’s frequent interviews are peppered with sarcastic subtitles and cheap shots taken at the expense of his subjects. The film often cuts to short clips of stock footage, providing a virtual reaction shot to anything that a zealot says that is the least bit absurd. Even more dubiously, there are flashes forward to Maher himself, shown ruminating in a car about his previous conversations, often offering a zinger that he couldn’t think up on the spot. Otherwise, Maher’s instincts as a standup comedian and talk show host are helpful here, and allow him to retort quickly and manipulate his interviewees into making foolish statements. Since he’s a prankster first and a reporter second, this matters little. Religulous is more an opportunity for Maher to showcase his competent comic delivery than to win hearts and minds.


     Amid Religulous’ willful foolishness, a few moments surprise. In one bit, a candid Senior Vatican Priest who acknowledges that people are destined to die with their dumb beliefs intact, and states that little can be done about that by the church. In another, an astronomer, ordained by the church, agrees that since modern science far postdates the Bible, arguing about whether or not men once rode dinosaurs is foolish. At both of these junctures, Maher seems to find a fellow skeptic, and lets his guard down. The more typical tone of Religulous, though, is crystallized in its smarmy closing monologue (ironically about humility), in which Maher’s false modesty is placed front and center.



Jeremy Heilman