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Dustin Putman

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Religulous  (2008)
3 Stars
Directed by Larry Charles.
Featuring: Bill Maher.
2008 – 101 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for some language and sexual material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 3, 2008.
The son of a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, Bill Maher dutifully attended church with his dad and sister until his teenage years. He treated the weekly Sunday excursion with boredom and, on occasion, fright, all the while not really questioning why his mom did not go with them until he was older. By this time, he had pulled away from them enough to think for himself, and what he took from the concepts of religion and faith perplexed him. As a fifty-something man, Bill Maher (comedian and talk-show host of TV's "Politically Incorrect" and "Real Time with Bill Maher") sets out to get to the bottom of this topic in "Religulous," a facetious yet sincere documentary that makes the case for why all of the world's organized religions are not only, well, ridiculous, but also detrimental and downright dangerous.

Maher begins "Religulous" standing on Megiddo, a hill in Israel that, according to the New Testament, is the site where Armageddon will occur. It looks pretty much like any garden-variety mound of dirt. He then takes off on a worldwide tour, visiting and interviewing religious leaders, scientists and average citizens alike. Most of his subjects, game though they may be, are depicted as people with unfailing faith and belief even as they stumble over and sometimes are left speechless at the fair, levelheaded questions Maher asks. Their reasoning for why things are so and their total inability to agree with each other on anything breaks apart the exhaustive range of religions (Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, Islam, and Scientology, among others, are covered).

How can one religion by right and the others wrong? How can the Bible be taken for its word when it was written and revised by the common man hundreds of years separate from the events discussed, and is fraught with fantastical stories that discount the scientific proof of evolution? Why does one antique shopkeeper Maher talks to defiantly shoot down the belief in Santa Claus, a red-suited man who flies around the globe in one night bringing presents to children, but is okay with the prospect of virgin births, talking snakes, and a being that supposedly murmurs simultaneously to millions of people the world over?

In one respect, Maher is ready to be critical to his interviewees, but he also actively searches to be enlightened and receive answers about things he hadn't thought about before. For the most part, he is respectful of them. As with Michael Moore, director Larry Charles (2006's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan") no doubt edits "Religulous" in such a way as to get the optimal comedic mileage out of the subjects' sometimes priceless reactions and ill-considered utterances. Maher has a point to make above all else—that religion is mishandled, woefully misinterpreted, and a way for people to grab hold of something to make them feel better about themselves and their impending deaths—and he does a thoughtful job of it that informs the viewer while getting them to open their minds to other possibilities.

Bill Maher is a lively, self-deprecating host who keeps "Religulous" snappy and jestful. The ludicrousness he finds in recent politicians' and authority figures' claims that this is a Christian country is cemented by quotations from founding fathers Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson that state in no uncertain terms how foolish and unnecessary they believed religion to be, particularly in relation to the way the country is governed. His discussion with a minister who reformed his homosexuality, married a lesbian and bred three children—"I guess the jury's still out on them," Maher says, not quite kidding—is good for giggles. This minister is obviously in denial and filled with Catholic guilt; the viewer can see right through his unconvincing façade.

In one absurdly funny sequence, Maher visits The Holy Land Experience, a theme park/museum in Orlando, Florida, complete with tour guides, exhibits where humans and dinosaurs coexist, and recreations of the crucifixion of Christ performed to the clicks and flashbulbs of tourists' cameras. What a lovely memory to capture on film. So subtle that it is all the more hilarious, Maher's interviews on the grounds of The Holy Land Experience are briefly interrupted by sounds in the distance of women screaming in horror and, most bizarrely, a witch cackling. It's stranger-than-fiction comic gold that could only be captured by a documentary crew.

"Religulous" is not deeply penetrating—Bill Maher has gone into the project with a singular, one-sided purpose, and is only able to skim the surface—but it is absorbing, amusing and rather educational. When the picture turns serious at the end, Maher speaking the truths as he sees them while images of religion-based death and destruction flash across the screen in a disturbing montage, the film stirs, shakes and makes one think that maybe he's onto something. Ultimately, though, the religious debate will rage on for all times. "What if you're wrong?" a devout believer asks Maher in one scene. "What if you're wrong?" Maher shoots back at him. Both are suddenly at a loss for words. What if, indeed.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman