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(2008) (Documentary) (R)

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Documentary: Comedian Bill Maher explores and questions various religions around the world by interviewing those of faith about their beliefs.
Comedian Bill Maher explores and questions various religions around the world by interviewing those of faith about their beliefs. His main focus is on the devout who don't question what Bill views as the uncertain, unbelievable or silly elements of their faith, and what acts (such as terrorism and bigotry) that then result from such blind faith.
OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Bill Maher first shows up in "Religulous" standing at Megiddo, the hill in Israel where, he reports, "Many Christians believe the world will come to an end." Picking his way through rocks, he vents, stand-up-style, noting that when this notion was first broached in the Book of Revelation, only God had the power to destroy the planet. Now that humans have nuclear weapons and "know how to pollute on a catastrophic scale," he reasons, the chances of that end have increased. "One thing I hate more than prophecy," he declares, "It's self-fulfilling prophecy,"

This pretty much sums up Maher's argument in the film. It's structured as something like a road trip, as he "seeks" encounters with religiously inclined people in order to demonstrate just how self-fulfilling their stories and beliefs are. That's not to say he means to prove what he already knows to be true -- he's not engaged in such "self-fulfilling." He is, however, convinced that "religion is detrimental to the progress of humanity."

But you know that already. If you're seeing "Religulous," you do know something about Bill Maher -- whether it's that he was fired from "Politically Incorrect" for saying the 9/11 hijackers were "not cowards" or that he now hosts a show on HBO, from which he issues raucous "New Rules" each week.

You might also know, as he underlines in the documentary, that Maher is the son of a Jewish mother and Catholic father, becoming aware of both the rigor and the randomness of religion at an early age. The movie, directed by Larry Charles, illustrates this personal story with photos of baby Bill (in his Sunday best plaid jacket, with a cowboy gun in his holster), supplemented by some reminiscing by Bill, his mother Julie and sister Kathie, about their "dysfunctional" family. "What do we believe in now?" he asks, "You're my mother, instruct me!" She shakes her head, "I don't know the answer."

This is why Maher loves his mom. Disappointed and frankly troubled by the certainty voiced by the religious acolytes he meets while traveling America's "back roads," much of the film's entertainment lies in these encounters. Among them, Maher seeks explanations of faith from members of the Truckers Chapel in Raleigh, NC ("You start messing with my God," grumbles one on his way out the door, "You got a problem"), tourists at the Holy Land Theme Park in Orlando (until he's chased off by a manager, "Because of what he is and what he does"), and an Ex-Jew for Jesus now selling Christian paraphernalia and awaiting the Rapture (Maher asks if he believes it's imminent, at which point Steve Berg smiles, "One can hope!").

Rather than certainty, Maher says, he's selling doubt, "That's my product." To make that pitch, he gets in believers' faces, wondering how Exchange Ministries founder John Westcott can be so sure he's right, that no one is born gay. When Westcott asserts, "I'm a heterosexual guy who dealt with some homosexuality," Maher suggests otherwise. "You're good-looking," he observes, "You're neat." As the soundtrack kicks in with the "Brokeback Mountain" theme song, the guys chortle loud and cute, so happy to show -- even compete over -- how clever and self-aware they can be. Leaving Westcott's office, Maher accepts a hug ("I hug everyone!" beams Westcott), but just can't stop himself from joking about the erection he may have felt during the embrace.

Maher is less amiable when he goes to visit Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas in his office. Asked to explain how he can believe that dinosaurs existed alongside humans, Pryor insists on the "literacy" of the story of the talking snake (this as a subtitle questions the word "literacy?"). When Maher presses him, saying he's too smart to believe in such silliness, Pryor doesn't even crack a smile: "You don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate."

It's not hard to laugh along with Maher at these and other hardcore types (say, the "Creation Museum" director whose establishment features an animatronic dinosaur with a saddle, or George Bush's pronouncement, "I believe that God wants us to be free and that's part of my foreign policy"), or even when he raises his eyebrow at the rabbi who's created gadgets to get around prohibitions on activities on the Sabbath.

But when he's arguing with rapper Propa-Gandhi over the intolerance of radical Islam, the tone seems less congenial. Maher suggests the fatwa on his friend Salman Rushdie was not a convincing sign of Islam's "tolerance," then underscores his point by visiting Amsterdam, specifically the site where Theo Van Gogh was murdered. Visibly dubious when Fatima Elatik says she finds tolerance in the Koran, he's equally skeptical of Dutch Parliament member Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom seeks to restrict entry to non-Western immigrants.

Maher doesn't try to change his interviewees' minds so much as he offers them up them as object lesson. From Mormons (who believe God has sexual relations with Mary) to Scientologists (who believe humans are infected with aliens) to Miami's José Luis de Jesús Miranda (who believes he's the second coming of Jesus), Maher's subjects are firm believers.

This makes them scary, a point made clear by repeated footage of suicide bombings, the attack on the Twin Towers, explosions, smart bombs, and street demonstrations featuring raised rifles and grenades. All this belief, Maher contends, means humans are well on the road to fulfilling the prophecies they accept as true. Or, as the closing credits sequence has it, on the "Road to Nowhere," courtesy of the Talking Heads. "Religulous" rates as a 5 out of 10. (C Fuchs)

Reviewed September 24, 2008 / Posted October 3, 2008

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