Bill Maher really wants you to know how he feels about religious intolerance. Why, he's positively intolerant of it. An uneasy fusion of a probing documentary and a neo'Lenny Bruce stand-up routine, Religulous sees Real Time host Maher traversing the globe to meet with people of faith, whom he dares to contradict his upfront thesis that all religions are comforting but dangerous fairy tales clung to by adults who should know better. For a guy who claims to privilege science, he's set his interviewees the impossible task of proving a negative: that they are not idiots.
The results are often wickedly funny. Try visiting a missionarial attraction like Orlando's own Holy Land Experience and coming away with anything but comedy gold. Director Larry Charles (Borat) feverishly intercuts the interviews to emphasize their more embarrassing contradictions, and inserts snippets of familiar commercial entertainments and TV news as ironic raspberries. Meanwhile, Maher keeps interrupting his study subjects with well-timed zingers. He's an adept comedian, if little else.
The movie is at its most interesting, however, when the attitudes of the faithful prove more sophisticated than Maher's own. The Vatican's own astronomer decries evangelicals who attempt to reconcile scripture and science; the two, he points out, had their heydays several centuries apart. And an Italian priest professes hilarious disdain for the more primitive holdovers of church dogma ' small details like the very existence of the devil.
Maher has no response to these mavericks but to chuckle appreciatively, then let Charles' roving camera change the subject. He seems unwilling (or perhaps afraid) to delve deeper into the idea that spiritual edification might not be the baby that has to get tossed out with the bathwater of myth.
In one early segment, we're taken to a 'truckers' churchâ?� that's a cramped, claustrophobic little sliver of a structure. It's one of the movie's best visual gags: Religion is 'narrow,â?� geddit? But while some of the parishioners there do respond to Maher's profane line of questioning by walking out in protest, others stay long enough to involve their guest in a climactic prayer circle, in which they thank God for the opportunity to participate in reasoned discussion with people of differing viewpoints. Maher thanks them for being Christ'like, as opposed to merely Christian ' and then he's gone, off to stalk easier prey. But first he jokes that somebody might have stolen his wallet.
Maher ends the movie with an impassioned monologue in which he blames religion for bringing us all closer to Armageddon. Fundamentalists, he argues, won't lift a finger to ease nuclear tensions or protect the environment, because doing so would get in the way of the end times. It's a terrific summation ' to another movie. The one he's made does indeed demonstrate the intellectual pitfalls of blindly adhering to any creed; I just don't think he intended to do it by making himself Exhibit A.