Comedian Bill Maher brings his disarmingly direct humor to the topic of religion in Religulous. The results are often as surprising as they are funny. Maher is the most straightforward of our top comics, even among those like Jon Stewart who regularly offer running commentary.
Stewart, in his own smart, humane and up-to-the-minute way, is today what P.J. Corkery said Johnny Carson was for earlier generations: "The Village Explainer" (borrowed from Gertrude Stein), meeting with his audience nightly to provide some realistic ballast in an increasingly unsteady world. (Stewart really is fair and balanced, even when he's angry.)
Maher is the village needler and even its provocateur. He comes at you full-throttle: He's fair and unbalanced. On HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, one of the few shticks he uses that doesn't work is the childish apology, "I kid the president," after turning Bush on a spit. His exasperation isn't a put-on. Neither are the personal tenets he puts right out on the table: hedonism, healthy eating and hemp.
In Religulous, Maher establishes a full, frank air of disclosure that's quite daring for a comic who has to wonder if we'll still find him a crack-up when we really know him. (We do.) He remembers growing up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father with the on-camera help of his feisty, intelligent mother (who died last year) and his supportive sister. His father brought the kids to church every Sunday until Maher was 13; his mother tells him her husband halted then because they practiced birth control, an anathema.
These family scenes allow Maher to be something I never expected him to be: moving. They're also full of lived-in details that will set off sparks of recognition in many an audience member, like the cap pistols little Billy never took off, even at bedtime.
Maher carries that spirit into the rest of his interviews. During interactions with Christians, Muslims, Jews and ex-Mormons (no practicing Mormons would talk with him), Maher displays the nimbleness, the preparation and, yes, the humanity that's often lacking in conventional reporters.
For all Maher's seriousness of purpose here, he isn't afraid to get silly, such as when he pulls classic pothead jokes on a fellow who runs a church based on cannabis.
As the locations roam from a truck stop chapel to a creationist museum and a Jesus theme park, and the production travels to Jerusalem, London and Amsterdam, director Larry Charles (Borat) sustains a crackling, irreverent tone. He deftly interweaves clips from classic (and not-so-classic) biblical movies as well as news footage and "educational" films, and uses on-air titles to deflate the bogus the same way Stephen Colbert would on The Colbert Report.
Maher's subject in Religulous, and it's a useful one, is religion as it is actually practiced in the suburbs, the country and the streets. He's an agnostic, not an atheist. His goal is to proclaim doubt about the mysteries that surround our mortality (such as what happens at death), and thus promote rationalism. He leaves certainty to true believers. He doesn't ponder what faith can do except summon a vision of the afterlife or provide an alternative to nothingness for the jailed or destitute.
Maher never grapples with the faithful who've made doubt part of their religious process. The movie contains some wry, eloquent cleric-intellectuals, including a Vatican astronomer who articulates that the Bible and science move on separate tracks, and a man described only as a "Vatican senior priest" who discounts (among other tenets) the sanctity of saints.
Maher attacks hypocrisy and mindless escapism for feeding social illnesses like exploitation of the poor and xenophobia. Pundits and now movie reviewers describe some of Maher's subjects as "easy targets." Easy for whom? Why should religious hucksters thrive without exposure and continue to bilk gullible followers because conventional commentators consider them unworthy of examination?
The Rev. Jeremiah Cummings, a former member of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (and also a former Muslim), wears a fancy suit, lizard skin shoes and lots of bling. He professes ignorance that Jesus said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. His exchange with Maher is horrifying as well as amusing, partly because Cummings is so relaxed. A combination of ego and show-biz rapport must make characters like Cummings or Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, the self-described Second Coming, feel at home with a comedy-club veteran.
Maher doesn't shy away from anyone's excesses, including a group of fanatic anti-Zionist Jews whose convoluted rabbi is the one on-camera subject he actually walks out on. Some Western Muslims exasperate him when they refuse to acknowledge the potential for war-mongering in Islam or to defend Salman Rushdie's right to free speech (a right they claim for themselves).
After laying out the awful ironies of three faiths competing for ownership of Jerusalem, Maher presents his own jarring Sermon on the Mount. He urges rationalists and skeptics to speak out and seize leadership from the devout before religion brings on Armageddon. It's the one heavy-handed sequence in Religulous, a movie that mostly manages to debunk blind faith with a twinkle in its eye.
(Lionsgate) A documentary starring Bill Maher. Directed by Larry Charles. Rated R for some language and sexual material. Time 110 minutes.