If you’re going to see one movie that prowls the religious landscape, asking difficult questions and taking potshots at crackpots, see Bill Maher’s “Religulous.” Maher is no theologian, and even his grasp of international relations isn’t always firm, but this documentary, directed by Larry Charles, mixes the timing of a Chaplin short with the acidity of a stand-up act. In other words, you’ll laugh a lot. You’ll laugh despite yourself, no matter what you believe.
The real fulcrum of the movie’s humor is Maher’s reproachful face, with its active brow over a firm, armored jaw. As his interlocutors twist themselves into knots of absurdity, overcompensation and religious cant, his disbelief flickers through his eyes, forces a tic and causes the whole to sway uneasily before Maher explodes in outrage. At other times, the features freeze in a mask of dull fear while his eyes seem to implore the interviewee to follow misplaced metaphysical rhetoric with some shred of sense.
This feat is ever the more remarkable since in the past few years documentarians and satirists have worn ruts in the some of driveways where the intrepid Maher leads his camera crew. We meet an “ex-gay” Christian who helps tortured homosexuals take up a heterosexual lifestyle. Maher whips up a bunch of worrisomely overweight truckers gathered in a truckstop chapel. He strolls the Temple Mount with an unctuous imam and finds in the hills of the Hudson Valley a ultra-Orthodox rabbi who believes Israel has no right to exist.
After each interview, we watch, and listen, as Maher decompresses in the van. He despairs about the nonsense his subjects spout, compares their beliefs with his own–a rack of doubt still festooned with the remnants of a half-baked Catholic upbringing. (Maher’s Jewish mother never explained why she didn’t go with the rest of the family to church, which his father quit anyway when the priests started preaching against birth control.) Some of Maher’s fulmination is sharp, but the lapsed Catholic confessionalism we’ve heard before, not any fresher or funnier, but no different either.
Maher’s exasperation works in tandem with Larry Charles’s elastic editing, which is part Woody Allen and part “60 Minutes.” The subtitles that pop up to diffuse disinformation being perpetrated onscreen owe a debt to Allen’s “Annie Hall”, but some of the funniest gags come when Charles ducks away from one subject to flash to another, who contradicts the first. It’s a documentary version of pulling Marshall McLuhan from behind the potted palm to refute the loudmouth on the movie line.
The best, but most disturbing moments, in “Religulous” come during an interview with Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, who makes the mistake of not taking Maher sufficiently seriously. Pinned between his Bible belt constituents and Maher’s increasingly alarmed questioning, Pryor finally jocularly admits that his disavowal of evolution doesn’t disqualify him from holding a seat in Congress. “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to get elected to the Senate,” scoffs Pryor. With a mordantly executed freeze frame, Maher and Charles play Pryor’s cheekiness as a gotcha moment.
There are some other visibly tweaked spots in “Religulous” that, given the lawsuits that came out of Charles’s previous feature, “Borat,” cause you to wonder whether some of those who agreed to be interviewed dug their holes as deep as the film suggests.
Francis Collins, the scientist who headed the Genome Project that mapped human DNA, looks helpless to explain the textual contradictions of the four Gospels; we can imagine as deep a thinker as Collins making sense of this fairly uncomplicated point if he weren’t being relentlessly soundbited by Charles’s cuts.
There are other frustrations, even for viewers who fully support Maher’s line and method of inquiry. Of all the believers we see, the only two who seem to measure up to Maher’s standards of benevolence and reasonableness are two Catholic priests. One, the former Vatican astronomer Father George Coyne, explains why Roman Catholic teaching doesn’t require scientific accuracy from Scripture. (The film doesn’t allude to Coyne’s recent departure from the Vatican observatory over his disagreement with Benedict XVI on the origins of the universe.) The other, a Vatican employee he encounters on St. Peter’s Square, delights Maher by shrugging off the doctrine of hell as antiquated and the intervention of saints as superstition.
How these two fit into Maher’s conclusions about religion as a threat to civilization is never made clear. Nor does the film include anyone else who grounds their faith with reason. The film portrays almost all religious thought as if it were stuck in the Middle Ages. As the Vatican official says to Maher, “You don’t keep up with things.”
Maher, who lost his primary platform, the ABC talk show “Politically Incorrect,” in 2001 due to some untoward thoughts about 9/11, has a reputation as a renegade comedian whose B.S. meter is wired too directly to his mouth. “Religulous” will enhance that profile, and perhaps anger some of his opponents afresh, especially in the film’s last minutes, in which Maher pronounces the moral of the movie. (“Religion must die if the world is to survive,” he intones, against a backdrop of mushroom clouds.)
But so late in a film so ripe with laugh–what they call “garbage time” in NFL games–it’s easy to forgive Maher his sermon. When it comes to faith, we’re all bound to get a little religulous.