Religulous (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Religulous Poster

Religulous is the much-anticipated collaboration between one of the guys responsible for Borat and Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry Charles) and the Politically Incorrect stand-up comedian (Bill Maher). The problem with the movie, whose title compresses "religious" and "ridiculous" into a single word, isn't that it milks more than one sacred cow but that it does so with minimal subtlety and intelligence. Being snarky and smug doesn't equate to providing insight, and there's more than one occasion when the filmmakers lose sight of this in their zeal to spread the Gospel According to Maher.

The success of the film may be tethered to expectations. If you are a deeply religious person, this is guaranteed to offend, and Maher doesn't care. According to him, you're part of the problem. If you're neither especially religious or irreligious, you'll probably get a few good laughs. However, if you're a member of the choir to which Maher is preaching, you may find this to be an especially shallow and uninteresting motion picture. It doesn't do anything stimulating. It's a 90-minute, comically-tinged rant against religion that offers selectively edited interviews with ringers. Maher's thesis is that religion is irrational and dangerous, and that's not exactly groundbreaking material. I happen to agree with a lot of what he says, but I was not at all impressed by the way he goes about saying it. Those who are offended by this film have a right to feel that way - the movie cheats and, by cheating, it trivializes the very message it attempts to promote. Ultimately, the question isn't whether Maher is right but whether he's interesting, provocative, or perceptive. I can't answer in the affirmative.

Religulous combines short monologues by Maher with interviews to illustrate nearly every conceivable negative associated with religion and to highlight the inconsistencies that believers ignore (which typically do not appear as inconsistencies to them). There are no meaningful dialogues on potentially thought-provoking topics such as faith, the separation of Church and State in the United States, and how religions view one another. More than 50% of the movie ridicules Christianity, leaving scant time for Judaism and Islam. Relatively minor sects/cults like Mormonism and Scientology are addressed while major religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are completely ignored.

In picking his interview subjects, Maher has largely elected to go with fringe figures rather than those who might engage him in a thoughtful and spirited debate. His talk with the Christian head of the Human Genome Project is brief and unenlightening. Mark Pryor, a Democrat Senator from Arkansas, might rank as the dumbest member of the U.S. government based on his interview. The host also enters into dialogues with a man who plays Jesus at a theme park, the Vatican's astronomer, an ex-Jew for Jesus, a maverick priest whose doctrine would give the Pope indigestion, a "reformed" homosexual who believes "gayness" is a condition that can be "cured," and a man whose religion is tied to cannibas. The fact is, however, that Maher follows in the footsteps of Michael Moore and Ben Stein by editing interviews in ways that serve his thesis. Many viewers of Religulous will be aware that what they're viewing has been sanitized and scrubbed to Maher's specifications. He doesn't do a lot to hide this, and that speaks to a level of arrogance and condescension that pervades the entire production. Maher is speaking down to us, like a teacher scolding kindergarten pupils. This is especially evident during the closing argument, when Maher drops all pretext of being funny and delivers a serious summation.

While the film is an utter failure as a documentary (it's more of a visual op-ed piece), it has moments of genuinely funny comedy. There are times when the inserted movie and video clips are inspired choices and some of Maher's tongue-in-cheek sarcasm is effective. On the whole, however, the occasional chuckles provoked by the movie don't make up for its sloppy, less-than-rigorous examination of an issue that deserves something more exhaustive. If the subject of religion is as important to Maher as he claims during his end comments, then he should have followed those words with actions and made a movie that's more than a sum of inauthentic interviews, ranting attacks, and obvious observations. The choir may hum along with Maher but the rest of those watching this movie will be singing the blues.

Religulous (United States, 2008)

Director: Larry Charles
Cast: Bill Maher
Screenplay: Bill Maher
Cinematography: Anthony Hardwick
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2008-10-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1