Since Larry Charles and Bill Maher’s new “documentary” about religion is so shamelessly polemical, I think it’s fitting for my review to match its pitiless contempt. Make no mistake, Religulous is an ill-conceived, poorly crafted film through and through. There are scenes when the film lives up to its promise of satisfying humor, but these are overshadowed by its vain attempts at cheap laughs. Still, if you’d like an hour and a half of Bill Maher’s “Would you get a load of this guy?!” routine you’ll probably find it funny.
Unfortunately the premise kills the film before it even begins: who in their right mind would think they can provide a careful critique of the three largest monotheistic religions in 100 minutes? The film is better described as a series of contrived conversations between Maher-as-smug-asshole and subject-as-crazy-hysteric; Religulous does accomplish this one ambitious goal. Various scenes of stock footage, news feeds, and clips from religious films are cut together with said interviews, presumably for ADD 10 year olds after their morning Cocoa Puffs. And when Charles can’t keep the narrative flowing with interviews, he resorts to Maher’s stilted monologues.
Religulous is a very confused film on many different levels. It can’t seem to decide whether the critical problem with religion is its sprawling, corrupt bureaucracy or its loony ideas and traditions. The film ends up leaning towards the latter, but I bet this was at least partially a matter of access (Maher gets thrown out of the Vatican, for instance). If this is the center of critique, the entire films seems pointless; the vast majority of theists are simply not that nutty. Too bad they don’t make for very entertaining subjects, so on to the next straw man! This gets at the more problematic identity crisis of the film: is it going for laughs or thoughtful reflection? I’m not saying you can’t have both, but in this setting the one frequently undercuts the other. Time after time in interviews Maher will pass on the chance to dig deeper into a subject’s motivation or overarching rationale and content himself with another joke. Maher’s last monologue (complete with a backlit low angle shot and nonsense like “grow up or die”) is so bombastically dramatic that at first pass it seems impossible that he is serious, but interviews with Maher say otherwise.
The whole film is coated with a thick layer of irony, but it becomes smothering in those final scenes when Maher is concluding his rant on “what the real problem is”. This is of course those “irrational” stories that people take to be true, but I have a counter-thesis: could it be that the real problem is arrogant, stubborn, uncompromising individuals? Does it matter what stories you buy if you still see the world in such black and white terms as the rational atheists versus the irrational theists? Is it possible that Maher’s insane hubris has so expertly disarmed his capacity for self-reflection that he is blind to the idea that he is not so very different from those he lampoons? “Grow up or die” does not sound too different in tone from “Repent before the one true God” and hollow claims of championing doubt don’t let you sidestep the fact that disbelief can have the same ring of certitude characteristic of fervent faith. In one of my favorite scenes, Maher is speaking with a Jewish Rabbi who uses some of his own interview techniques against him: cutting him off, pontificating for long periods of time, speaking over him, etc. Maher can’t take it; “never again” he mutters before walking off the interview.
Ultimately, this undermining irony reaches to cover every corner of the film, from intent to execution. Sure, being a priest can be self-serving, but what do you call spending 2.5 million dollars so that Larry Charles can live vicariously through Bill Maher as he travels from New Jersey to Jerusalem trying to squash the meaning that animates so many people’s lives? And for what? So Lionsgate can release a film that, if anything, probably further polarizes its viewers on such an important subject? Religion’s got plenty of problems, but Maher and Co. definitely aren’t helping to solve them.