Knowing full well that I am going to be assailed for giving a good review to the Bill Maher-Larry Charles comedy/documentary Religulous a mere week after I gave a blisteringly bad review to the faith-based Fireproof, I’m honor bound to do it anyway. Does this irreverent—sometimes scathing—look at religion better fit my personal worldview than Fireproof? Is the Pope infallible when he speaks ex cathedra? Is that why I’m giving the film high marks? Since what it’s saying appeals to me—at least in part—increases its chances, but it’s not the reason. The reason really comes down to this: Religulous is a cleverly constructed piece of work that by turns amused me, made me think, alarmed me and occasionally offended me. In the case of a film of this sort and with this agenda I don’t think the fact that it sometimes offended me is necessarily a negative.
In broadly simplistic terms, the film is being taken as Maher’s attack on religion for what he perceives as religion’s preposterousness, its ability to divide rather than unite us and its basic irrationality. True enough as far as it goes, but Maher isn’t selling a replacement dogma per se. He’s selling the idea that there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know.” He compounds this by insisting—and this will be a problem for a lot of people—that neither does anyone else. But since the movie’s intent is to be confrontational and provoke controversy, is that a failing? That’s a call you’ll have to make for yourself. If a movie that functions on such a basis is going to offend you, it’s simple enough to stay away. Though the fact that Religulous was the surprise hit of the weekend—coming in at number 10 despite its showing in a mere 502 theaters, with an estimated average gross of $6,972 per theater, making it the second most popular film in the country on a per theater basis—indicates a lot of folks aren’t staying away.
I’m personally not all that fond of Bill Maher. I find him just a little too pleased with being Bill Maher to take to him. Even when I’m in agreement with him, I’m not wholly comfortable with the fact. He’s witty, quick on his feet and a terrific raconteur. The problem is that he’s all too often more interested in being a provocateur—to the point that I often find him unnecessarily mean-spirited. Indeed, it’s this very quality that made Religulous topple over into the offensive on occasion.
I had no problem with him scoring points off a Christ portrayer at a Holy Land Theme Park (ye gods) in Orlando by pointing out to the self-satisfied man that all the basics of the Christ story are part of several earlier mythologies. Nor did I have a quibble when an ex-gay minister who specializes in “converting” gays to straights opined that there’s no such thing as a homosexual and Maher responded, “Have you met Little Richard?” (The minister himself took the whole interview with grace and good humor.) But there were other times when Maher was obviously mocking his subjects rather than debating with them. Some of them probably deserved it, but it left a sour taste.
Similarly, while I found both of the Vatican priests that Maher interviewed to be fascinating, lucid and well-spoken—as apparently did Maher—I found it odd and a little disingenuous that he didn’t factor their obvious non-glassy-eyed, non-fanatical take on the subject into more account as concerns his views. In other words, not everybody’s like the guy building the creationist theme park where dinosaurs and children are in the same displays, and I think that needed addressing.
Perhaps the footage is simply meant to speak for itself. Most of the more bizarre events and responses are allowed to speak for themselves. Maher even makes no comment on the alarming image of people at that Holy Land theme park applauding every time the Christ portrayer got knocked down by a Roman guard impersonator. Now, that’s something I’d love to have explained to me.
Bottom line is simple. The film is well made, funny, pointed and very, very irreverent. But really, in terms of content, it’s the flip side of the faith-based movie, because it’s ultimately preaching the religion of doubt to people who already have doubts. (Then again, if Bill Maher can undermine your faith, your faith was already in trouble.) In that regard, its primary value lies in how funny you find it—and in being the first outright movie aimed at the cited 16 percent of the population who admit to being agnostic or atheistic. Rated R for some language and sexual material.