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Fishes and Loaves in a Barrel

A smart guy makes a dumb movie about religion.



RELIGULOUS ss Directed by larry charles Written by bill maher

The only TV show I watch religiously is Real Time With Bill Maher, an hour-long mix of interviews, panel discussion, and comedy bits that's broadcast live on HBO on Friday nights. Maher—who famously lost his ABC show Politically Incorrect after remarking that the 9/11 hijackers were courageous—seldom shies away from controversy, and on Real Time he impatiently dismisses political cant, prodding guests deeper into the issue at hand. He's avowedly left-wing, but he seems genuinely curious about opinions that contradict his own; just as The Daily Show With Jon Stewart often gets closer to reality than "objective" news shows, Real Time often makes more progress on the issues than conventional talk shows. If Real Time has declined in recent seasons, with first-rate conservative guests harder and harder to come by, the fault lies less with Maher than with the show's vociferously liberal studio audience, which he's constantly shushing or tweaking for its orthodoxy.

Maher's first film project, Religulous, is a major disappointment because here, unlike on Real Time, he aims for laughs instead of insight—and aims low. The movie opens with Maher in Israel, perched on a hill in what was once the ancient city of Megiddo, which the Book of Revelation prophecies will be the site of Armageddon. As he points out, people are now more capable of destroying the world—through nuclear technology, pollution, and global warming—than they are of understanding it. "If there's one thing I hate more than prophecy," he concludes, "it's self-fulfilling prophecy." To him, faith is a neurological disease that has to be cured before the human race destroys the planet, and anyone who defends faith is an "enabler" and a "fellow traveler." As he concludes at the end of the movie, "Faith means making a virtue of not thinking."

But as Maher and director Larry Charles tour the world, surveying the influence of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, they bypass serious religious scholars and historians—the sort of thinkers who might have moved the discussion into uncharted territory—in favor of fundamentalist goofballs who can be ridiculed with ease. Their first stop is the Truckers Chapel in Raleigh, North Carolina—a trailer at the side of a highway rest stop—where Maher quizzes a half dozen truckers on the more fanciful extrabiblical aspects of Christianity. One volunteers the theory that, because DNA testing on the Shroud of Turin has supposedly revealed the presence of female blood, Jesus must have been born of a virgin. Another confesses that he was a satanist priest before he was saved. One trucker, irritated by Maher's questions, storms out, declaring, "You start disputing my God and you've got a problem." It's like shooting fish in a barrel.

Maher might have produced a more useful documentary if he'd limited himself to the dire influence of Christian fundamentalism on American democracy. He skewers the commercial motives of televangelists in a sit-down with Orlando preacher Jeremiah Cummings (who sang with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes in the 70s). Cummings explains that Jesus, contrary to his image as a man who shunned wealth, wore fine linens. Mark Pryor, who represents Arkansas in the U.S. Senate, mangles the English language as he defends creationism to Maher, then impales himself on the botched one-liner, "You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate." And John Westcott, whose Exchange Ministries offers to help people "find freedom from homosexuality and sexual brokenness," takes some heavy ribbing for his claim that he's a reformed homosexual. When Westcott argues that people experiment with homosexuality because they're insecure, Maher replies, "It takes a lot of security to walk out of the house with assless chaps."

To be fair, not everybody Maher interviews is a clown: he sits down with Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, who sees no conflict between science and faith, and the Reverend George Coyne, director emeritus of the Vatican Observatory, who dismisses the idea that the Scriptures can be used to teach science. But the excerpts from these conversations are too brief to gain any traction; they're used mainly to buttress larger points Maher is trying to make, not to confront the paradox of faith and reason coexisting. Maher and Charles are much more interested in carnival attractions like the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, where the kids can see a life-size replica of a triceratops wearing a saddle, and the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, where fat tourists flock to watch synchronized dance numbers and reenactments of the Crucifixion.

The movie works hard for its laughs—and frequently cheats to get them. Like Michael Moore, the filmmakers insert clips from old movies to serve as punch lines, drawing on a wealth of Hollywood biblical epics and Christian instructional videos. In some cases the device seems egregious: Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, a Puerto Rican immigrant who claims to be the second coming of Christ and the Antichrist, is interrupted by clips of Al Pacino in Scarface—as if he needed help looking stupid. In several interviews Maher's rude remarks are followed by fake reaction shots of the interviewees, taken out of their original context and spliced into the conversation. On-screen captions are used to debunk false statements, which is fair enough, but sometimes they're just used to mock the subject: when an imam receives a text message during his interview, they caption it "What r your orders?" and the imam's reply "Death 2 Bill Maher. LOL :)"

I'm inclined to attribute this sort of dirty pool to Charles because it's so reminiscent of the MO of his previous movie, Borat. When I saw Maher and Charles present clips from Religulous at the Toronto film festival a year ago, at least one audience member was willing to call them on these stunts. The difference in their responses was illuminating: Charles snapped "Make your own movie!" while Maher pointed out they were screening a work in progress and promised to keep the criticism in mind. Obviously Charles prevailed, though Maher also must have concluded at some point that they were making a comedy and it had better have some guaranteed laughs. He'd have been wiser to take the high road he travels on TV: Real Time has proved that you can get much more incisive comedy by raising the intellectual stakes.

When Bill Hicks, the brilliant social satirist who died in 1994, was asked where he got his comic ideas, he replied that he was inspired by anything that defied his sense of logic. In a way, then, laughter and faith have something in common—they both kick in when we reach the limits of reason, though laughter is probably a function of disbelief rather than belief. Religulous turns out to be a small movie about the biggest questions of all: why we're here and how this all came to be. If Maher really wanted to provoke thought on the subject, he should have skipped the truck stop and kept driving.v

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