Movie Review by Samuel Taradash
Starring: Bill Maher
Director: Larry Charles
Satire may be the best tool to remind the powerful that their strength lies at least partially in the perception of others. Not just mockery, but actual wit and intelligence aimed at the flaws of the mighty can do more to expose weakness than the most damning confession. Bill Maher has made a successful career in comedy this way. It’s a noble calling, really, to keep the mighty humble; or at least remind the plebes that the mighty can be humbled. Which is why RELIGULOUS should be such a great film.
Maher’s point is that religion is irrational; at worst it’s a mess of superstition and brainwashing, responsible for hatred and violence, and may well be leading to the imminent destruction of the modern world. And he does a very good job of confronting people with the contradictions between ancient holy books, modern religious practices, and the actual business of living with other people without exploiting or abusing them. Almost two decades of interview-based television has made Maher very good at getting to the heart of a discussion. He’s sharp. Maybe too sharp for some of the people he fillets on camera.
RELIGULOUS takes aim at the biggest religions in modern American consciousness, but spends too much time aiming Maher’s magnum-caliber questions at a barrel of fairly small fish. Sure, the notion of a chapel for truckers that’s actually built inside of a semi-truck’s trailer is pretty funny. But when he thoroughly zings the deeper theology of people without the same sort of education, the humor comes from making people look foolish. As RELIGULOUS goes on he aims higher: evangelical preachers, charismatic personalities, self-satisfied politicians, but it never really shakes the sense that Maher is sticking it to people who don’t know any better.
More difficult is the fact that he chooses to mock the black evangelical preacher by comparing him to a silk suit wearing, gold-bedecked pimp, or comparing the Puerto Rican charismatic to Tony “Scarface” Montana. And his attempts to interview Muslims are tinged with an air that actual dialogue is impossible. Does Maher make valid points? Quite probably. But the style makes it too easy to dismiss the film out of hand as racist.
But Maher is not out to make conversation. He’s not trying to flatter, and he’s not interested in making people feel good. His point is that religion is laughable, and the film delivers something humorous at almost every scene. From the gay-redemption ministry that denies the existence of homosexuality to the founder (and sole member) of the Church of Cannabis, from the Creationist Museum’s domesticated dinosaurs to the Militant Islamist rapper who appears wearing a giant rabbit head and ammo bandolier, Maher drives home the point that people say and do some crazy things. RELIGULOUS is an all-out broadside against modern religion, fired at the great and the goony alike.