Starring and written by Bill Maher. Directed by Larry Charles. Released by Lionsgate. $29.95. Rated R. *** (3 STARS)
When President Barack Obama said in his inaugural address that "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers," satirist Bill Maher and others fitting into the latter category must have been pleased to be included. As Maher (Real Time with Bill Maher, Politically Incorrect) claims in Religulous, his feature-length documentary from 2008, a "hidden minority" of 16 percent of Americans consider themselves "nonreligious."
Out this week on DVD, Religulous is a combative, profane, gleefully blasphemous and frequently hilarious film essay that argues for the validity of science and reason over faith. He launches an equal-opportunity assault on religious dogma and the tenets on which some of the major religions are based. His aim is to demonstrate that "religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity." Proudly wearing the banner of agnosticism, Maher proclaims "I preach the gospel of 'I Don't Know.' "
Maher's skepticism toward religion appears to have emerged from his growing up in a "mixed-marriage" - his father was Catholic, his mother Jewish. He attended Catholic Church until he was about 13, when his father decided he could no longer accept the church's teachings on birth control.
Maher's strategy is to mock and offend, through monologues and combative interviews. Maher's comrade-in-dissent is director Larry Charles, of Borat and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, and the two provide a joint DVD audio commentary that is almost as funny as the film itself.
Maher makes no attempt at fairness: He uses jokey subtitles to challenge and ridicule claims made by those he's interviewing, and for humorous effect intersperses archival footage of preachers in action and silly scenes from biblical movies. The goal is to both educate and induce laughter.
Whether Maher goes too far depends, of course, on the views of the beholder. Piling wisecrack upon wisecrack and barb upon barb, Maher sometimes engages in comedic overkill. Take the case of his interview with Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda of Miami's Grace Ministry. He's the minister who claims to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and has more than 100,000 followers internationally. Rather than just taking on the minister for his claims, the film mocks his Spanish-accented English by cutting to scenes of Al Pacino hamming it up linguistically as Tony Montana in Scarface.
It's doubtful that Maher will change any minds with Religulous, though those of a more open-minded persuasion will find a good amount of provocative entertainment and much to laugh at.