Bill Maher is preaching to the choir with “Religulous,” a documentary that dissects organized religion, but he’s doing it in his laceratingly funny, typically sardonic way.
The comic has touched on this topic often in his standup act and on his HBO talk show “Real Time With Bill Maher,” but here he uses his formidable debating skills to go on a full, focused attack. Pretty much no one emerges unscathed (except those who practice Eastern religions, for some reason).
Although Maher’s mother was Jewish, he was raised in the Catholicism of his father’s side of the family; now he calls himself a rationalist, and thinks the idea that we all came from a garden with a talking snake is a fairy tale for overgrown children and crazies.
If you’re an atheist or an agnostic, you’ll be completely on board and happy to tag along with Maher as he travels the globe asking people about their faith — everywhere from Jerusalem to the Vatican to Amsterdam, where he finds not only the Cannabis Ministry but also a Muslim gay bar (with two people in it). At a makeshift truckers’ chapel in Raleigh, N.C., the drivers put their hands on his shoulders and pray in a circle that he’ll find the Lord (good luck with all that); at the shlocky Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla., Maher interviews the actor playing Jesus, a hippie who wears a headset microphone to perform on stage.
If you’re a true believer, though, you’ll probably be offended — and some of his subjects become visibly agitated with him on camera. Maher is surely smart enough to realize that his movie will convert no one, but he seems to get off on the thrill of the challenge nonetheless.
“Religulous” comes from director Larry Charles, who teamed up with Sacha Baron Cohen for “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” and it has a structure reminiscent of that 2006 comedy as well as similarly uproarious laughs. The ones on the receiving end of Maher’s Socratic-style questioning are often humorless — they don’t get that he’s toying with them — which makes the results even more absurdly amusing. The more Maher probes, the more hypocrisies he exposes.
Having said that, many of his targets are low-hanging fruit, which was true of “Borat,” as well. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a Christian who believes in creationism, doesn’t come off as the sharpest tool in the shed, and that’s before he starts making up words such as “indigously.” (His final quote: “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate.”) Yisroel Dovid Weiss, an anti-Zionist rabbi in New York, is depicted as babbling, combative and on the fringe.
But as you’ve probably noticed by now, “Religulous” consists of a series of interviews, a parade of talking heads expounding about heavy subject matter, which potentially could have been dry and lifeless. Instead, it’s consistently entertaining and often laugh-out-loud outrageous, a testament to Charles’ ear for comic timing and to the comfort he and Maher clearly enjoy with each other.
Quick cutaways to movie clips that illustrate his points, from “Scarface” to “Superbad,” keep the energy and hilarity high, as do subtitles commenting on the conversations, similar to “The Word” segment on “The Colbert Report.”
But Maher undermines his arguments at the end when the tone turns sharply serious: He tries to make a connection between religion and all the wars and violence in the world, and he does it with the same kind of certitude he condemned others for having. He takes his infinite verbal capacity and turns it into a heavy-handed tirade, when the process of seeking enlightenment had a far more divine power.