Religulous (2008) dir. Larry Charles
Anyone who has seen Bill Maher’s talk shows knows his opinion on religion. This travelogue documentary, in which he attempts to ‘discover’ how and why most of the educated world still clings to seemingly obsolete notions of religion, serves as a 90mins one-sided forum for Maher’s extreme opinions. Alas, it's often uproariously funny.
From the trailer parks of red state America to absurd evangelical compounds to the offices of ultra right wing Washington the Evangelical Christian movement are like ducks in a barrel. All religions are on target too. Extreme Judaism, Islam, Scientology all get shit upon as well.
Often Maher and his subjects are talking at cross purposes. No one makes the simple argument to combat Maher that the purpose of religion is not to follow it to the letter, but, in the case of Jesus, to use the example his pious life to improve one’s own. Maher concentrates on battling with zealots who refuse the word of science and make blockhead arguments for the real life existence of the mythological aspects of Christianity.
Like it or not, the film is as much about Bill Maher as it is about religion. Maher carries himself with an impenetrable confident swagger. He arrives at each interview armed with the weapons to battle any argument for religion. Most of the time he’s debating with people with less intellectual skills than himself, and so it’s easy-pickings.
If the film were about an honest and fair debate about religion we could fault Maher and Charles for their carefully-chosen subjects, but the film is about comedy. In fact, it could be argued that Maher’s global tour arguably is a standup routine masquerading as documentary. Like when comedians appear as guests on the Tonight Show, they can disguise their gags in the form of answers to interview questions, the wacky evangelists and zealots serve as sounding boards for Maher’s well rehearsed jokes.
Larry Charles is perhaps too blunt to intercut the absurd ridiculousness of his cooky crazies with bizarre retro videos to pull a few laughs. It’s a cheap tactic from the dirty book of propaganda 101, but with a certain degree of shame I found myself laughing.
If Maher weren’t so damned funny and articulate “Religulous” would be easy to dismiss. With a degree of guilt and maybe a confession at the end, we are given permission to laugh. Enjoy.
“Religulous” is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment