October 9, 2008

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Religulous (R)
Bill Maher builds the case for getting religion out of public life in the documentary Religulous.

“Documentary” is probably not the right word — docu-rant might be closer. Maher talks to a variety of people from a variety of religions — most of them, it seems, toward the edge of the religion in question — to get a sense of exactly why they believe what they believe. Trailers for the movie mention that this movie shares producers with Borat, and in some ways Religulous is like Borat, only it’s not joking. Whereas that movie put people in uncomfortable situations for a gag, in Religulous Maher asks people directly why they believe in God, in the story of Jonah and the whale, in Adam and Eve, in the immaculate conception, and doesn’t back down when they say that it’s part of their faith. But why do you have faith, he asks? Is faith, he asks, which for example people use to explain their belief in creationism despite evidence to the contrary, really such an admirable thing? Is it, he asks, something we should desire in our leaders, people who have the godlike ability to destroy the world?
It’s not normal that I’d give away the ending to a movie but I think it gives the movie more heft than just the anti-religion mock-fest it seems to be in the beginning. (And mocking the fringes of the religion isn’t just like shooting fish in a barrel, it’s like buying dead fish and putting bullets in their mouths.) The movie ends like this: grow up or die. Get over your religion, at least as it manifests in public life, or suffer the consequences of decisions made by people who claim God talks to them or they’re doing God’s will. Bill Maher won’t be winning many friends (of any political stripe) or networks with this argument but it is an interesting one to see made. Despite all the talk of the “liberal media” and “liberal Hollywood,” the anti-religion argument is not one you regularly hear made aloud in any kind of mainstreamishly available forum. Whatever your feelings about it, it’s kind of interesting to wonder how many public figures feel some shade of the same way but think to say so would be political suicide.

All of this does not entirely get the movie past Maher’s smug-bastard-ness. He is the smartest kid in class — but not the kid who’s smart enough to know that telling everyone how much smarter he is will not make him the most likeable kid in class. He uses 9/11 in the same cheap way Ben Stein used the Holocaust in his movie (or, for that matter, in the same way An American Carol uses 9/11). And he does find the most ridiculous parts of religion, the people and things that seem like the biggest scams, to back up his point. It occasionally wins him laughs but not exactly points for intellectual honesty.

If you’re already composing an angry letter to Bill Maher (or to me) about how disrespectful and horrible this movie sounds, you can probably save your cash. Likewise, I am on the fence about how big a turn-off his smugness is (is it a grande or a venti amount of “ugh, enough”?). But in this season of political discussion, if you can suffer just one more rant, this one might be worth it. B-

Rated R for some language and sexual material. Directed by Larry Charles and written by Bill Maher, Religulous is an hour and 41 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Lionsgate.