Believe it or not, I was looking forward to "Religulous," Bill Maher's basically one-man show purports to seek out the state of the world's major religions in ways both insightful and semi-skewering.
Yes, I am a Christian. Yes, I am a minister.
Yet, even I can openly admit that much of what organized religion has to offer is frequently funny, occasionally hypocritical, not always that faithful and, when it comes down to it, perfect fodder for a cinematic raking over the coals.
In a style similar to Albert Brooks's "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," Maher sets off around the world talking to both experts and common folk about God, religion, organization and lots of stuff in between.
It's not the objective, I mind. It's the simple fact that Maher, who describes himself as a seeker, is so much funnier and smarter than anything to be found in "Religulous." The most disappointing thing about "Religulous" is that when you listen to Maher's asides you can't help but get the sense that there's a genuinely brilliant film trying to be born here...it just never happens.
Instead, director Larry Charles ("Borat") and Maher are content to focus their serious questions on a collection of individuals who could be, at the most generous, considered to be on the fringes of their respective religions with only a couple of exceptions. While this may very well may for occasionally cutting humor (and I mean occasionally), it wrecks any potential this supposed "documentary" has to actually examine the issues that Maher at least says he wishes to examine.
"Religulous" spends more time seeking laughs than it does seeking answers. Given the subject matter, it could have easily had it both ways.
The other problem, one accurately pointed out by Washington Post film critic Neely Tucker, is that truly effective satire is grounded within knowledge and, despite his air of intellectualism, Bill Maher clearly doesn't have an intellectual understanding of any of the world's major religions. His methodology for seeking seems more intent on ridicule and humiliation, rather ironic given that he so fervently wishes to point out religion's tendency to do that very thing.
Where "Religulous" does succeed, at least in moments, is in Maher's frequent asides and in the overall feeling that he didn't so much bait his interviewees as much as he simply gave them the room to be as open as they wanted to be. There's something about organized religion across the board that is inherently funny, and both Maher and Charles seemed to realize that they didn't so much have to manipulate their subjects as they simply had to stick a camera in their faces.
It's sort of like watching Terry Nichols in Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine." You sit there, you watch and you're completely and utterly amazed that someone could come off so completely idiotic and never realize it. Suddenly, the film comes out and the entire world is laughing AT you and righteous indignation rises to the surfaces. "I Never," Nichols would proclaim. In that film, Moore never baited Nichols...he just let Nichols be Nichols. Maher and Charles do the same thing here with a man who plays Jesus at the Holy Land Experience amusement park, a rabbi who denies the holocaust, a Christian who believes that humans roamed with dinosaurs and quite a few more.
Occasionally, as in when Maher examines Catholicism, the results are entertaining AND insightful. Mostly, however, they elicit a few chuckles and preach to Maher's choir. While "Religulous" sure isn't a disaster, it's disappointing given Maher's known comic potential and his regularly televised socio-political insights.
So much potential. So little result. Organized religion may very well have its potholes and hypocrisies, but if this is the best the skeptics have to offer it's no wonder people choose faith.
by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic