Religulous (2008) / Comedy-Documentary

MPAA Rated: R for some language and sexual material
Running time: 101 min.

Cast: Bill Maher
Director: Larry Charles
Screenplay: Bill Maher

Political comic Bill Maher (DC Cab, House II), host of HBO's "Real Time", releases his first documentary, skewering one of his main sources of contention -- religion.  One gets the sense of the film's content from the title, which is a mash-up (or portmanteau, to be more precise) of the words 'religion' and 'ridiculous', and the film itself provides mostly satire on the current state of organized religion and its increasing pervasiveness on society, from governance to day-to-day activities among the common folk. 

Religulous is mostly documentary in terms of footage, though the way the film is put together by Maher and director Larry Charles (Borat, Bruno) plays real-life interviews and events mostly for laughs, including subtitles and additional text interjections that push the film primarily into the comedy genre.  It is mostly a series of shorts where Maher travels to a location somewhere around the world of religious significance, from sites as serious to those within the religion as the Vatican and Jerusalem, to superfluous religious-themed tourist attractions such as Florida's Holy Land Experience amusement park or a museum that takes the Bible literally in the notion that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, placing dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.  Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism and Scientology are all primary targets.

Maher's film is a tricky one in which to review, as it definitely will ruffle more than a few feathers, and will likely greatly offend those who consider themselves devout in their respective faiths.  If you're a person who adamantly refuses to listen to anything and anyone that would dare question your belief system, my guess is that you're never going to put on a film like Religulous blindly, especially considering its R rating, which automatically crosses it off the list of many in this camp.  Therefore, the rest of my review will deal with the rest of the potential audience -- open-minded religious people, the curious, and fans of Maher's political humor.

Maher's film works better as a comedy than a documentary.  Although most of the interviews are done under the guise of a serious interview, there is some humor value to be had for those who find religious practices and beliefs to be quaintly weird.  Religious organizations such as Exchange Ministries, which claims to be able to stamp the homosexuality out of people, or Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, a Puerto Rican minister in Miami who tells his followers that he is the second coming of Jesus Christ, and a direct descendant, are probably hilarious to those outside of their organizations, especially in the way that Maher playfully gives them skeptical jabs throughout his interview.  If taken purely on laughs and interest, Religulous will most likely be found pleasing to a majority of viewers.

As humorous as Religulous can be at times, I do think that Maher's film doesn't feel as well thought out as it could be from a documentary standpoint.  Interviews are heavily edited, with liberal amounts of tweaking to make certain points in Maher's favor, and many of them intentionally spliced together out of context in order to give blank stares and awkward reactions for laughs.  Maher seems to go out of his way to be a nice guy in order to get the interview, and during the interview, he continues to be graceful, only diverging from this position when the opportunity arises to make a joke, usually at the interviewee's expense, and then the horns come out after the interview is over and he says what he really wants to say, i.e., what a crock of bull he thinks their beliefs are.  The changes in scenery and topics are an asset, though the overall theme of the film, which is that all religion is crazy, will most likely not be delivered to anyone who doesn't already feel this way.  As a form of persuasion to those with religious beliefs, I'd say it fails, even if it provides ample evidence to nonbelievers as to why they should feel proud of their position.

The film does end well, as Maher implores a wake-up call to those who are not religious to be more vocal about their position so that those in governance will not always kowtow to religious interests in their public speeches and policies.  It is only in these final moments that Maher's documentary elevates itself from semi-smarmy ridicule in order to drive home an important point:  the world is going to Hell (not literally, if you ask Maher) in a hand basket because many people, including those in positions of power, believe that we are in the Last Days.  They don't feel a need to do what they can to save a world, whether from global warming or nuclear threat, that they've been told is going to be either saved or destroyed by God within their lifetimes.  Maher asserts that religious thinking is a major impediment to progress in keeping life on Earth from the brink of destruction, and that the only way to combat this is to expose religious thought, at least in terms of its imposition on public plicy, as something that should be eschewed at all costs. 

Religulous may have some serious flaws as a documentary, but if you're looking for some good food for thought in your comedy, it definitely will provoke that throughout.  A bit more spit and polish, particularly in carrying through thematic material, would have gone a long way to making this entertaining film the ultimate indictment against the ridiculousness of religion that Bill Maher probably intended from the outset.  However, given that the subject is, to say the least, touchy, the fact that this film was even made is worthy of at least some kudos to Maher for having the guts to potentially offend the vast majority of people in the country, and perhaps the world, with his expression of doubt in their beliefs and his own belief that, though many individuals have found great benefit from the ancient scriptures, religion ultimately does more harm than good when looking at it in its totality from a global historical scale.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2009 Vince Leo