Though based on some of the responses I have received about my last post on “Religulous”, it might be hard for Idol Chatter readers to believe I kept an open mind when I attended a screening of the film last August, yet I honestly believe I did. I used to love Bill Maher on “Politically Incorrect” and I never saw the praised-yet-controversial flick “Borat”–from “Religulous” director Larry Charles– so I didn’t have any assumptions there either. (Besides, I have been known to laugh at far more wildly inappropriate material than any nice Christian girl should.) But I can tell you the exact moment when I realized that “Religulous”was not going to be that funny, nor was it going to be important or provocative.
Early on in the movie, Maher makes a trip to Raleigh, North Carolina. Good choice. It’s actually one of my favorite places to visit. But the Raleigh that Maher visits in the movie looks nothing like the Raleigh I know. His entire visit seemed to consist of a trip to a tiny chapel at a truck stop where a few truckers meet for church. They obviously didn’t know who Maher was, or what his shtick was, and they quickly become offended when he peppered them with questions about the credibility of the gospel they passionately believe in. Watching that scene, I had only one thought in my head: If you want to pick on someone your own elitist intellectual size, Duke University Divinity School is right down the road!
And that incident more or less sums up the problem with this movie. There is plenty to satirize about religion. There is plenty to debate about religion. But Maher spends time offending those believers of all faiths who are easily offended or fearful and never engages with believers who aren’t afraid of clever banter, witty one-liners, and cheap shots. Not only is there not much sport in that, but, come to find out, there’s really not much entertainment value in it, either.
There’s the scene where Maher is asked to leave the cheesy Christian amusement park after talking to a guy playing Jesus. Now, a scene where Bill is asked by Mormons to leave their church. Then a scene where Bill tries to sneak into the Vatican. Oh, but let’s not forget the guy who created his own religion centered around smoking pot. Are you seeing the predictable pattern yet?
How much more interesting–maybe even funny–could the movie have been if Bill had really had the courage to go toe-to-toe with some of the more charismatic and intellectual religious minds around? But then maybe his pre-prepared zingers wouldn’t have seemed quite so clever. That doesn’t seem to be a risk Maher was willing to take.
I will say that despite the numerous flaws and logical fallacies of this movie, there is one moment I enjoyed. Maher is driving in a car after one of his interviews in which someone explained to him how God could be a triune figure–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The visual analogy Maher is given is one that for someone like me felt so familiar it was like going back to Vacation Bible School 101: Water can exist in three different forms– liquid, solid, and vapor– and so it is with God. Maher, unlike me, seems genuinely surprised and a little impressed by such a smart explanation. It is almost as if a spiritual light bulb goes on over his head–for about ten seconds. Then he quickly quips that he still thinks they’re “full of s–t.” It’s the only moment in the film that made me wonder if Maher is as certain of his rational, intellectual disbelief as he seems.
If “Religulous” had shown Maher actually wrestling with his disbelief-even if done as a fictional, mocumentary type of film– now that would have been funny. Instead, the film is just in-your-face propaganda that will only entertain Maher’s most loyal of disciples.