Shooting Loaves and Fishes in a Barrel
2008 // USA // Larry Charles // October 8, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - Odds are, you already know whether you will appreciate Larry Charles's Religulous. If you find Bill Maher funny, then Religulous will tickle you. If the notion of Maher confronting the essential horseshit of religious belief via a series of globetrotting interviews sounds engaging to you, then Religulous will spin your dreidel, so to speak. More accessible and yet possessing a narrower, humdrum aim than Charles' sublimely crackpot social critique-slash-Jackass stunt, Borat, Religulous doesn't break any new ground theologically or cinematically. Maher, who has evolved from a Christmas-Easter Catholic to a doubter to a forthright critic of faith, clearly yearns to play the part of the acerbic foil, eager to "go there" and call religious leaders frauds and fabulists to their faces. If you've ever wandered into a watercooler—or Internet forum—discussion about religion, you know the arguments, just as you know that neither Maher nor his hapless subjects will walk away swayed by the other. While the enterprise is a little creaky—"Hey, did you know that there are fundamentalist nutjobs in America?!"—Maher and Charles surprise with an approach both more personal and more forceful than one might expect.
Sticking primarily to the Big Three monotheistic faiths familiar to most Americans—with some Mormonism and Scientology thrown in for bonus crazy—Maher travels to holy sites around the world and talks with prominent religious leaders as well as folks-on-the-street. Some of these conversations veer close to Michael Moore-style (or affiliate news show) ambushes, and one suspects that Maher sometimes concealed his intentions in the hopes of backing his subjects into a corner. Of course, as with The Daily Show, one wonders: Have these people never seen Maher before? Do they not understand his outlook and biases? Or are they just hoping that a little national face time, regardless of the interviewer, will allow them to set the record straight? Maher mostly refrains from bullying or humiliating his subjects, but he does adopt a ruthless, pressing tone that demands intellectual consistency.
There's no devastating insights to be had in Religulous that you won't find in much more erudite and exhaustive best-sellers such as Dawkins' The God Delusion or Hitchens' God Is Not Great. The film's ambitions are actually pretty modest, and its format unfortunately tedious: Maher asks people why they believe ludicrous things absent any evidence, they shrug and hand-wave, and Maher looks at the camera as if to say, "Can you believe this crap?" It's not exactly bleeding-edge social commentary. Yet Maher makes it fairly engaging, I think, because he really is perplexed that so many of his fellow human beings enthusiastically embrace delusions. It's hard to imagine, say, the late George Carlin—a less patient, less haughty, more cynical comedian—ever engaging in this sort of faithless odyssey, much less permitting a film-maker to tag along. Maher has the right combination of self-satisfied intellect and low tolerance for baloney to present himself as a credible foe of faith, but he also maintains enough dim hope in humanity that Religulous doesn't feel like a mean-spirited farce. Vitally, Charles opens the film with Maher's reminisces about his family's early religious life, including an interview with his mother and sister. Thus, while the director engages in some freakshow goggling at religious extremists, the film's angle is not that of a curious outsider peering into an alien world, but an escapee urging his cell-mates to leap the fence.
Maher is funniest when playing the part of the aggressive debater, or when engaging Charles' camera in acidic conversation during their roadtrips. These stances play to Maher's strengths as a stand-up comedian and a fearless moderator. In contrast, his "Professor Maher" shtick—reciting scripted commentary on location at religious locales—comes off as dry and awkward. The Discovery Channel look to these sequences just doesn't mesh well with Maher's asshole glee for upsetting apple carts or with Charles' passion for guerrilla film-making. Indeed, when Charles veers too close to a self-amused, sneering tone—such as his liberal use of video clips to mock his subjects or to slather on heaping helpings of irony—Religulous starts to feel like a half-assed effort in the already stale documentary subgenre of smug liberal polemic.
Fortunately, Charles exhibits a fine talent for crafting the raw material of Maher's combative encounters into neatly edited and annotated comedy. Most engagingly, the director appreciates the value of his film's genuinely unexpected and sobering moments, even if they are outnumbered by the pauses for snickering. When Maher visits an ex-gay Christian ministry, the laughs are pretty much there for the plucking. More memorable are scenes such as Maher suddenly walking out in disgust on an "anti-Zionist" Orthodox rabbi, or when the comedian is unable to coax even moderate, Westernized Muslims to say that the murder of Theo van Gogh was, you know, wrong.
Unlike most polemics, Religulous doesn't claim to be The Film That Every American Must See. Maher clearly declares that his target audience consists of the 16% of Americans who are atheistic, agnostic, irreligious, or just indifferent to matters of faith. The goal, if Religulous could be said to have a raison d'etre beyond knocking comedy softballs over the wall, is to spur that silent minority into action. Maher wants them to openly declare their opposition to fairy tales and challenge the often unexamined Bronze Age superstitions of the majority. If you're a member of that majority, sitting through Religulous may be a tall order, even if Maher does make you chuckle. I enjoyed it, but, then again, I agree with him.