by David Orlikoff
Documentaries are often less entertaining than fictitious cinema, though that does not mean they aren’t enjoyable. Still, by their very nature, they tend to focus on truth and the imparting of information over supplying the audience with just what is most amusing. Documentaries are necessarily true, but whether they educate or entertain is up to the individual filmmaker.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is essentially a good time in screen form. Similarly, The King of Kong is a documentary that tells an almost perfect Hollywood narrative. Both of these films succeed as entertainment by almost circumventing the fact that they are documentaries. And this begs the question, “Are documentaries meant to be funny or entertaining?”
As a full-blown talking-heads documentary, one might expect Religulous, directed by Larry Charles, to be more realistic than his previous “mockumentary,” Borat. This is not the case. Charles manages to lose this realism by letting the principle character, stand-up-comedian-turned-political-commentator Bill Maher, run loose.
What was funny about Borat wasn’t the few staged scenes but how Charles used the framework of a documentary to get genuine human reactions out of people. In fact, this is what Charles has been doing his whole career.
“Seinfeld,” “Mad About You” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” all share a realistic take on comedy. They obsess over inane arguments and the minutiae of day-to-day life, picking them apart to find the inherent humor. This approach to comedy has worked well for Charles for decades. It is a pity that he now abandons it in Religulous.
Maher is supposedly not an atheist. For the bulk of the movie, he preaches the “Gospel of ‘I don’t know!'” to various religious figureheads, including those from the Jews for Jesus to the Cannabis Ministry. Some are incredibly interesting, like Father Reginald Foster, a Catholic priest and the reigning papal Latinist who dismisses just about everything ever taught in Catholic school with a wave of his hand and a simple “Bah.” Other experts, whom Maher sympathizes with, appear knowledgeable and draw genuine interest from the audience.
Still, probably the funniest parts of the film come when Maher talks with a complete loony or swindler. Maher deftly filets a televangelist whose only credentials are his gold chains-paid for by the church-and who demonstrates a severe lack of Bible knowledge. He also meets with a man named Jesus who claims to be the second coming of Christ. Another man portrays the religious figure at a biblically themed amusement park and engages with Maher in a debate on the Holy Trinity.
The problem comes when Maher pushes these people too far, especially since many are already living on the edge of reality. As he puts it, these are people who believe in talking snakes and giant fish, among other things. Where a good satirist might point out this popular and irrational aspect of our society, Maher instead tramples all over it, alienating not only himself but the audience as well from the subject matter and those interviewed. It becomes impossible to relate to the scenarios being played out on screen and Charles’ legacy of comedy-by-realism goes down the tubes.
Maher is overly combative in the film, and he plays not just rough, but mean. The film uses stark editing and montage to blow away any perception of impartiality and leaves the audience with a bad taste in their mouth. It is funny, yes, but only to those who share his views.
To be fair, the title is a portmanteau of “religious” and “ridiculous,” so the devout are probably not the intended audience. As only likeminded secular liberals would ever wish to see this film, the ironic idiom of “preaching to the choir” is omnipresent for all of Maher’s rants. This fact, along with our national tendency toward maliciousness, allows for some big laughs in the theater. Some of the material is very funny, but Maher is not happy making another funny film. This time, he’s out for blood.
Maher sets up a prescriptive ideology for his viewership throughout monologues interspersed within the film, though mainly concentrated at the beginning and end. He concludes that not only is religion wrong, but that it will destroy us all.
Regardless of what his choir thinks of the merit of his conclusions, Maher fails abhorrently in expressing his theories as logical arguments. He sets the standard for religion, proclaiming himself as a great rationalist, and then misses the mark entirely. Just as he pulls no punches on the trucker church crowd, this dogmatic ideology is inexcusable.
Religulous is a funny movie (for atheists) that fails due to extreme moral corruption. The glaring question it raises is not about how so many people could be so wrong in their religious beliefs, but who is more hypocritical? The false prophets and failing institutions? Or, Bill Maher himself?
2 stars out of 5
Director: Larry Charles
Screenwriter: Bill Maher
Running Time: 101 minutes
Now playing at local theaters