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October 4, 2008

Maher’s quick questions and quips abound, but Religulous is no revelation

For the non-religious, Passion of the Christ was a boring, irrelevant movie told in Christianity’s favorite language: excessive drama. Similarly, Religulous, a slightly more entertaining movie that’s only relevant for the non-religious and fence-sitters, is told in the favorite language of atheists: snark. This latest offering from Borat director Larry Charles follows comedian Bill Maher as he travels across the world, asking religious people supposedly penetrating questions. It’s full of Maher’s characteristic quick wit and a hilarious, unabashedly blasphemous tone. Unfortunately, that’s about all it is. In a movie that bills itself as a humorous critique of religion, there are plenty of laughs, but not a lot of bite.

To start off, there is plenty to criticize about Maher’s methods. He expects a Jesus impersonator at an Orlando theme park to somehow provide a quick, concise answer to questions that have been debated by philosophers and theologians for centuries. The editing blatantly stacks the interviews in his favor. Most important, however, is the fact that Maher often forgoes making a point for making a joke.

But to criticize Religulous for these things misses the whole point of the movie. Maher isn’t out to battle Thomas Aquinas; he’s out to challenge popular religion. He’s after the many, many people in this country and in others who live otherwise normal lives, basing their judgments upon empirical evidence, but can turn around and say, “This is my faith” without examining a thing. Religulous skewers the Joe Six-Pack religious philosophy that proceeds with one simple premise: Viewed from the perspective of our highly scientific and technical modern world, belief in talking snakes, resurrection, and virgin births should immediately strike people as, well, ridiculous.

Whether the movie’s premise is correct or not is, of course, a matter of an exhausting, arrogance-laden debate. Expecting a movie to hit all the points, or even all the important points of this argument, is unrealistic, and criticizing Religulous for not doing this would be unfair. This movie is simply Charles and Maher’s hilarious contribution to the debate. Saying it’s anything more is giving them too much (or, perhaps, too little) credit.

So what really matters is not why or what they did, but how they did it. There are few comedians that are better at off-the-cuff comments than Maher, and he is masterful in his ability to catch people in their own double-speak. The only time he seemed genuinely off base with an interviewee is during an interview with a Vatican priest who more or less agrees with many of Maher’s critiques of Christianity.

Unfortunately, the humor’s momentum slowly runs out over the course of the movie. About halfway through, the interviews start to run together and you get tired of laughing at the same jokes. It doesn’t help that the film constantly skips from interview to interview, often revisiting the same topic many times. There are a few downright unnerving moments, however, that kept me on my toes. Strangely, nothing makes you want to laugh more than a Muslim rapper praising the British free-speech laws allowing him to publish violent pro-Islam songs, while in the same breath he seems completely unaffected by the brutal murder of a filmmaker whose work criticized Islam.

Religulous seems intent on taking a more darkly humorous angle toward the end, but Maher’s approach to religion is still too stand-up to make its dramatic ending seem anything but a non sequitur. His somewhat jarring political monologue at the movie’s conclusion (punctuated by a baffling and nearly interminable series of nuclear explosions) could have used more polish and honestly had the potential to elevate Religulous to—if not a level of seriousness—at least a certain level of relevance. While funny, Religulous fails—dare I say—to ascend to any higher level than that of school boys throwing rocks at stained glass. The non-religious will find it amusing, if not particularly innovative. The religious will most likely just find it offensive. Despite its good moments and overall redeeming charm and wit, Religulous is most likely destined to become an orphan of a movie that neither demographic will watch.