ReligulousReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/03/08 00:16:04
At the beginning of his controversial documentary “Religulous,” comic-turned-pundit Bill Maher stands in the center of Megiddo, the ancient Israeli city that is mentioned in the New Testament as the site where Armageddon will one day take place, and announces that he will be traveling the world to discuss various world religions and their tenets with scientists, scholars, preachers and ordinary believers in order to demonstrate that their beliefs, which have become increasingly dominated with notions about the end of times and the glories of the afterlife, are doing more harm to the world than good by presenting scenarios that are more interested in destroying than in creating or preserving. (As he succinctly puts it “If there’s one thing I hate more than prophecy, it’s self-fulfilling prophecy.”) This is definitely a provocative premise for a film and if “Religulous” had stuck to it, it might have resulted in a truly memorable and thought-provoking work that would inspire any number of intriguing post-screening discussions. Unfortunately, just after announcing that this will be the film’s central thesis, it then goes on to essentially ignore it until its final minutes in order to give us one scene after another in which Maher gets into a series of smirky “debates” with a bunch of clueless dopes that he and director Larry Charles (whose previous film was the not dissimilar “Borat”) have managed to wrangle in front of the camera so that they can make fools of themselves. Many of these scenes are funny, to be sure, but when you compare the promise of that opening statement with what eventually follows, you can’t help but come away from the film feeling a little disappointed about its lack of faith, for lack of a better word, in its initial thesis.Between those gripping opening and closing scenes, “Religulous” sticks to a relatively straightforward pattern for most of its running time. Maher shows up in some far-flung location, ranging from a museum based on the theories of Creationism and a truck stop ministry to such slightly more authentic religious checkpoints as Israel and the Vatican, and finds some people willing to go on camera with him to have a debate about their religious beliefs and whether they really and truly take the stories and superstitions of their belief systems to be the literal truth or not. Among those who pop up are a religious-minded scientist who insists that the Bible is based on eyewitness accounts or, as he eventually admits, “within a couple of decades of eyewitness,” an anti-Zionist rabbi who doesn’t believe that the Jews belong in Israel, a pair of gay Muslim activists, an inventor who specializes in devices designed to help Orthodox Jews get around the various restrictions brought upon by observing the Sabbath and, inevitably, a man who insists without a doubt that he is indeed Jesus Christ. Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the notion of speaking to Maher--we see him and his crew getting booted from the Mormon Tabernacle and the Vatican (which leads to Maher turning the camera on the ornate building and inquiring “Does that look like anything that Jesus had in mind?”) and I can only assume that he couldn’t even get near the Church of Scientology since all he does regarding them in stand in London’s Hyde Park and scream out their core beliefs as though he were a crazy man.
Mind you, a lot of these moments are very funny indeed. As a lapsed Lutheran (which is no easy trick since to be a Lutheran is technically to be a heretic in the first place) whose tendency to ask the unanswerable questions during the portion of the service when the kids were brought to the front to get a bite-sized serving of the sermon led to the request that my parents no send me up with the other kids anymore, I was hugely amused by the scenes in which Maher picks holes in the logic of the various religious stories and the believers try to explain them away (in their eyes, the story of Jonah makes a lot more sense if the whale is downgraded to “a large fish”). There are also a number of scenes in which he meets up with blatant hucksters and simply lets them hang themselves in front of the cameras--the most odious of the bunch is a shameless opportunist who insists both that he be called a doctor even though he isn’t (though he was once a member of the Blue Notes) and that it is God’s will that he dress up in obscenely expensive clothes. (When he insists that he doesn’t pay full-price, Maher’s response is the funniest line in the film: “You were a Muslim, you became a Christian and you buy clothes like a Jew.”) At other times, when Maher turns off the snarkiness, as he does when visiting the Netherlands and discussing the increase in Muslim violence in that country (including the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh), he suggests what a serious-minded version of this film might seem like. In my favorite sequence, Maher visit’s a Florida amusement park dedicated to providing visitors with “The Holy Land Experience”--as the cameras roll, Maher gets into a conversation with the show’s Jesus (who temporarily disarms him with an analogy explaining how the Holy Trinity can simultaneously be both one person and three people), visitors get into an intense debate about their respective beliefs (even the one who cites no less of a holy text than “The Phantom Menace”) while the park’s publicity manager is seen tearing out here hair and complaining to one of the producers that she had no idea that Maher was going to be there.
Those moments hit the correct balance between provocative and entertaining but as “Religulous” progresses, they grow fewer and further between. After a while, too many of the debates begin to seem like unfair competitions between a smartass who already has his knockout one-liners in pocket and people who often don’t seem to quite realize who Maher is or what kind of movie they are appearing in. At other times, he seems to be deliberately trucking in weirdoes to prove his case that all religious-minded people are a little off--in Amsterdam, he goes so far as to give us the head of a church dedicated entirely to pot and not only does he not have anything of use to say about religion, it literally takes his hair catching on fire to inspire an actually emotional reaction in him. However, the real problem with the film is that neither Maher nor Charles have really figured out what they are trying to say with all of their finger-pointing and nit-picking. When Kevin Smith did much the same thing in his religious comedy “Dogma,” he was at least grasping at real questions involving religion and faith while still providing all the outrageous jokes one could hope for. Outside of the abandoned opening thesis, “Religulous” doesn’t seem to have any overreaching idea of its own tries to cover that absence up with a run-and-gun approach in which the film jerks from one group of oddballs to the next without any meaningful transitions or connections and everything is spackled together with clips from old movies ranging from cheaply-made religious films to such blockbusters as “The Ten Commandments” and, inexplicably, “Scarface.”Vaguely condescending, aesthetically off-putting and eschatologically threadbare, “Religulous” starts off as a penetrating look at religion and the ways that it has been twisted and perverted throughout the centuries in the pursuit of power and money and ends up as a vehicle for Bill Maher to show everyone just how smart and smug the former star of “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death” can be. Some of it is very funny--I can’t remember the last time I laughed as much at a film that I didn’t really like--but after a while, both he and the film become more than a little tiresome. In the big finale, Maher returns to Megiddo and declares that since most religions are focused too much on an End of Times policy (which is now a possibility thanks to nuclear weapons) , organized religion must come to an end if mankind is to have a chance of surviving, a point that he summarizes in the end by flatly stating “Grow up or die!” If only he had taken his own advice, “Religulous” might have actually lived up to all the hype.
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