(2008)2.5Perry SeibertReligious hypocrisy is an easy target for an articulate, quick-thinking comedian like Bill Maher, and his documentary Religulous allows him numerous opportunities to burst the self-important bubbles of many true believers. Unfortunately, his methods are so smug that they're likely to alienate his critics, along with plenty of non-fans who might have otherwise agreed with his central thesis -- that religion is both irrational and responsible for many of the world's troubles.
Maher's interview style causes the bulk of the movie's problems. Unlike Michael Moore, who plays dumb in order to get people to incriminate themselves by saying something dumb or cruel, Maher consistently dominates the discussion; he is forever steering the conversation toward some zinger that will shut the other person up, which carries the glaring side effect of appearing to negate the whole purpose of the interview. This style has its benefits when he lays into someone like the minister who wears expensive suits and gold while preaching that Jesus will bring material comforts to believers -- that's a guy the audience wants to see exposed. But sadly, Maher doesn't adjust his smug, confrontational style when he's talking to people who don't profit in any material way from their beliefs, or indeed demonstrate any religious hypocrisy at all. When he stops at the Trucker's Chapel in North Carolina, his one-sided conversation with the parishioners feels ugly; he can't hide his contempt for his subjects, but we don't share in it. After all, these people aren't hurting anyone with their faith. On the contrary, it would appear that most members of the Trucker's Chapel congregation are mostly looking for a sense of purpose in the midst of life's difficult circumstances. But Maher isn't interested in finding out about other people, he just wants to tell them what to believe -- which doesn't work for the audience when we sympathize more with the truckers than with him.
His lack of genuine curiosity especially hampers the two most interesting interviews. In the first, the official Vatican astronomer offers a concise and compelling explanation for why religion and politics are entirely unrelated, rather than opposed, to each other. In the second, a Vatican priest points out that parishioners are free to disagree with the Church -- or even to voice their dissent when they feel the actions of the Vatican contradict the true tenets of Catholicism -- without the risk of tarnishing their faith in God's eyes. These two men both offer a genuine intellectual challenge to Maher's take-no-prisoners approach to religion, but Maher fails to follow up on these tantalizing concepts because -- despite his own claim that the product he's selling with the film is "doubt" -- he never once doubts himself.
However, for its failings as a documentary, Religulous does work as a comedy -- which is clearly half the goal, since the filmmakers have described the movie as a "docu-comedy." It consistently produces laughs, and director Larry Charles pointedly includes clips from other movies (often classic Hollywood Biblical epics), and also utilizes subtitles to cleverly reveal facts that directly refute what people onscreen are saying. These are easy comedic devices, but the filmmakers employ them for maximum effect; they will certainly tickle anyone who shares the movie's skepticism. Oddly enough, for a film about the evils of religion, Maher and company have made a film that does little more than preach to the choir.