Bill Maher is a polarizing guy. There’s not much middle ground when it comes to his snide, often condescending brand of comedy: You either agree with him or you hate his guts.
The same can be said of Maher’s sure-to-be-controversial new documentary Religulous, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks ago and which opens at the Esquire Theatre on Friday. Director Larry Charles — uniquely clad in his ubiquitous beard, a suit and a pair of pink crocs — and Maher were on hand to introduce the film to a sold-out, clearly partisan audience.
Maher closed his brief introductory remarks by saying, “Mel Gibson did a film for them. This one is for you.” (Maher and Charles sat about four rows behind me during the screening, which resulted in several exuberant audience reactions, like the ironic refrain, “Oh my God!”)
As anyone who has followed Maher’s career knows, the guy has no use for organized religion, and Religulous is his attempt to address the issue in a feature-length documentary — or, as he calls it in the film’s press notes, “the final battle between intelligence and stupidity that will decide the future of humanity.”
Shot in the same aggressively lo-fi manner as Charles’ previous directorial effort, the quasi-doc sensation Borat, Religulous follows Maher as he does first-person interviews with everyone from the roughhewn dudes at the Truckers Chapel/Truck Stop Ministries in Raleigh, N.C., to Father Reginald Foster, senior Vatican scholar and principle Latinist for the Pope. And like Borat, the film’s methodology is unclear: Do the interviewees know what they’re getting into? (In Maher’s defense, he’s much better known than Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter ego.) Is the film selectively edited to maximum comedic effect? (Duh.) Is the guy who leads the Cannabis Ministry in Amsterdam for real?
The obvious answer lies in Maher’s own post- Toronto screening Q&A insight: “I wanted it to be funny.” (He also didn’t hesitate to rip Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin: “She’s one of the speaking-in-tongues Jesus freaks I talk about in the film.”)
And funny it is. Maher is an effective interrogator, playfully playing devil’s advocate to a variety of diehard believers of nearly every faith, most of whom don’t fare well under his scrutiny. Think a slightly less manipulative Michael Moore or a wittier Morgan Spurlock.
And while there will be those who find his prodding mean-spirited and/or unfair, Maher saves his most pointed questioning for those who try to impose their religious views on others or those who have turned faith into a profitable business venture: a formerly gay pastor who helps homosexuals become “normal” again; the guy who runs the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky; a hypocritical, pro-violence rapper; and an anti-Zionist Hasid who was one of several Orthodox Jews to attend the Iranian “Holocaust Denial” conference.
Charles complements the interviews with funny pop culture footage — mostly old biblical movie epics — that Maher cites as one of the many tools used to keep these various religious “myths” alive.
Yet one large question remains in the wake of this entertaining, occasionally incisive, somewhat uneven documentary: Is Maher preaching to the choir?
Religulous is unlikely to change (or even reach) the minds of the very fundamentalists that he’s targeting, including the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and politicians like President Bush who make decisions based on faith rather than facts.
In fact, the film might end up emboldening religious ideologues. A small line of people holding signs like “Don’t Mock My Religion” and “Make Peace, Not Maher” picketed outside the theater before, during and after the premiere in Toronto.
On the other hand, Maher points out that 16 percent of Americans are not affiliated with an organized religion — a total more than double that of the Jewish faith — and millions more keep their beliefs to themselves. Is Religulous, as its alarming finale plainly asserts, Maher’s way of empowering this large block of people to speak up before we reach a religion-induced Armageddon? Grade: B