He of little faith

Bill Maher auditions for the part of      Judas Iscariot.

Bill Maher auditions for the part of Judas Iscariot.

Rated 4.0

Organized religion and some of its many followers take a few shots in the face, a couple to the gut, and a kick in the ‘nads from Bill Maher in Religulous, a funny and sometimes brutal indictment of all things God-related. Sure to stir up controversy and get Maher banned from a mosque or two, this documentary is a case of a star not letting his celebrity get in the way of his mission. Maher goes at people with a ferocity that takes a lot of guts, and the results can be shocking.

There was a time when I didn’t think Bill Maher was very funny. He just seemed smug and pompous to me, his standup comedy was one note, and his TV shows were an exercise in smarminess. But, sometime in the last couple of years, the man started cracking me up. His latest show, Real Time with Bill Maher, perhaps works because we get him in a smaller dose mixed with multiple guests. I consider the tirade when he kicked 9/11 conspiracy theorists out of his studio for interrupting as one of the great TV talk show moments of the past decade.

With Religulous, Maher crosses over into film with a vengeance. It’s one of the more daring documentaries I’ve ever seen, where a man sits in rooms with devoutly religious people and basically tells them they are full of shit. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and Scientologists all face Maher’s wrath, and it’s probably accurate to say he didn’t make many friends on this shoot.

One of the things I love so much about this film is Maher’s ability to shine a light on the intolerant nature of some so-called religious people. While there are a few interview subjects who patiently accept his line of questioning and more or less hang in there, many treat Maher like he is Satan incarnate for having the brashness to question their doctrines and dogmas. He’s also kicked out of the Vatican and told to leave the grounds of the Mormon Tabernacle. When visiting a Middle Eastern mosque, someone comments that he’s an unfunny Jew, he shouldn’t be here and his show sucks.

Maher takes an interesting approach when interviewing subjects. I’m guessing most of the setups qualify as some sort of ambush, meaning his subjects aren’t really sure what they were getting into. The film is directed by Larry Charles (Borat), who is no stranger to brutal interview sneak attacks. I’m sorry, but when people are this ignorant, stubborn and hypocritical, I’m more than happy to see them get caught like a squirrel who broke too late in its effort to scamper across the highway.

After seducing his subjects with good humor, Maher’s fangs come out. He even smokes a joint with the head of some sort of strange marijuana religion in Amsterdam, before mocking him (an interview that concludes with the subject’s hair catching on fire).

Maher does a beautiful job of showing how people have basically bastardized the beauty of Jesus’ teaching. Actually, he questions whether Jesus ever really existed. He cites other pre-Christ religions that included prophets who were born on Dec. 25, were crucified, and resurrected from the dead, as proof of this argument. Oh man, he clearly doesn’t care who he disturbs.

Ultimately, Maher sees religion as just plain silly, and can’t believe intelligent beings choose to believe that dinosaurs existed with man and that the fate of man changed when a talking snake recommended a certain fruit. In one case, he uses an old anti-Mormon propaganda cartoon that I recall seeing in Sunday school when I was a kid. It made me laugh then, and it makes me laugh now.

By film’s end, Maher is no longer laughing. He’s pissed off, looking straight into the camera and telling doubters to speak up and tell the religiously devout to grow up. It’s his belief that religion is a corrosive force and that organized religion is contributing to our eventual deaths. Amen, Bill … amen.