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Maher happily makes a mockery of religion

Bill Maher (left) visits The Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla. Bill Maher (left) visits The Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla. (lionsgate)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 3, 2008
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It's entirely possible to leave "Religulous" thinking the planet is shaped like a barrel and the people living in it are fish that needed shooting. The shooter is Bill Maher, the stand-up comedian who now specializes in bloviating. The fish include anyone who believes in God.

In this road documentary, Maher travels the world (the Netherlands, the Bible Belt, the Vatican, the Wailing Wall) and meets with laypeople, clergymen, scholars, politicians, and fanatics, all of various denominations.

As an exchange of ideas, this is a hopeless project, since Maher's doubt is as immovable as his interviewees' certainty. As entertainment, it's entirely a matter of whether of you find Maher's superiority complex a laughing matter. He's a committed skeptic, and those who aren't must be stupid.

Obviously, the film, directed by Larry Charles of "Borat" fame, is rigged in Maher's favor. But his smugness makes him a frustrating guide for this kind of quest. The film has a habit of cutting away from interviews for Maher's commentary during the drive to the next location. You can see him trying to work the car for a laugh.

The comedian has done his Bible study and religion-history homework. (In a London park, he even disguises himself as a bum and shouts the sci-fi premise of Scientology.) Many of the faithful Maher interviews are underprepared or exposed as naïve, misinformed, or possibly fraudulent. Once in an infrequent while Maher's haughty disdain finds an appropriate subject, and a kind of negative chemistry develops.

Take his meeting with Jeremiah Cummings, a former member of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, an ex-Muslim, and now a popular minister with a flagrant taste for the finer things. Maher asks all the right questions - about his lizard-skin shoes and gold jewelry, how he makes his money - without bullying. He hooks Cummings with flattery, then reels him in. The same trick works with the Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, an evangelical Christian and Democrat who says something so self-incriminatingly thoughtless that your heart goes out to him.

But Maher and the movie usually mistake mockery for a form of communication. During interviews, the film makes brief editorial cutaways to footage of, say, armed jihadists or an explosion meant to comment on what someone's just said. It's not a strategy that necessarily becomes Charles, who, as ringmaster in Sacha Baron Cohen's traveling circus, never had to resort to the movie equivalent of muttering under his breath.

In "Borat," Cohen played dumb at the risk of his life and his integrity. Maher never puts himself in danger of any kind, physical or intellectual, unless seriously interviewing the actor who plays Jesus at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla., counts as endangerment. Even Michael Moore - who, it should be noted, is both a superior filmmaker and more compelling movie character - has managed in his documentaries to let other people besides himself look smart.

Mostly Maher is content to riff, rant, opine, judge, reduce, and preach - zealously, I might add. Early in the film, he meets with a group of American men in their tiny church, and speaks from an elevated pulpit, requiring them to look up at him. One of the men doesn't appreciate Maher's tone, excuses himself, and exits. He knows that Maher is not looking for answers. He's looking for targets.

Religulous

Directed by: Larry Charles

Written by: Bill Maher

With: Maher

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 101 minutes

Rated: R (some language and sexual material)

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