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Preying on the 'Religulous'

October 2, 2008 By:
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Olive branch to religion? No way, as Bill Maher scopes out the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
Is there a tone for his sins? Sardonic ... disputatious ... dismissive. Just don't expect it to sound like Kol Nidre.

Cole Porter, maybe: After all, Bill Maher has always been bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the role religion has played roiling the unholy waters of society.

But to make a feature-length documentary about it? Don't be ... "Religulous."

Oh, but he is.

The documentary, shot guerrilla-style, gets its patina of monkeyshines from the hands of the brash/bash of a broadcaster and host of "Real Time With Bill Maher" on HBO. It's definitely not TV; it's an argument, just like the ones you have over Shabbat dinner, especially if most of your guests are far-left and like to pile it onto the token neocon who brought the rugelah.

Opening Friday -- and, yes, just yonder is Yom Kippur; feast or famine in Maher's book -- "Religulous" is an equal-opportunity offender, throwing stink bombs at Christians, Jews, Muslims and, oh, those misguided Mormons (Mitt Romney needs a glove and a catcher's mask to protect himself from the low-balls speeding his people's way).

In the beginning -- although no one will ever catch Maher clutching a Bible in his hands for a beach read -- the host/narrator/provocateur is in Israel, at a site that Catholicism claims will herald the second coming of Jesus.

C'mon, says the host, looking for ghosts: Instead, we get Maher; another Jewish guy with claims to fame that rouse rabble, and then rattle preconceived notions in a riot of speeches.

Not that he's playing God; well, maybe in his own mind ...

Preying on the "Religulous"? With all its scattered shots at religion -- some well worth taking, no doubt about it -- this is a catholic cannonball shot by a comic born to a Jewish mother, but raised Catholic as he flushes out reason from faith.

It ain't a pretty picture.

His potshots at the payot-wearing Orthodox are pointed at not exactly a typical example: Rabbi Dovid Weiss of Neturei Karta International, an anti-Zionist who raised the anti-Semitic ante in Iran by attending and praising its 2006 International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust.

Easy target, but then again, so are the Scientologists, on whose shoulders and temples his filmmaking cruise control alights often enough. (Director Larry Charles is as iconoclastic as they come; he last directed another needler in a haystack: Sascha Baron Cohen, the bewildered Borat.)

The only thing needed to cushion the blows would be a sofa for Tom Cruise to jump on.

Some issues are worth addressing, but the street where he lives seems one way for Maher: A pox on all your houses of worship is what the raving raconteur comes up with in a film that faithfully defiles the religious and their religions.

And the scene in which the actor portraying Jesus is flayed and nearly filleted in a re-enactment of the Crucifixion ... sheesh, give that guy a drink; he'll need a Gibson to get over that simulated sadistic portrayal, as filled with passion as it is.

Ultimately, those familiar with Maher -- and count me in as a half-hearted fan who feels his fanning of the flames is a good thing for a society sometimes blinded by getting smoke in its eyes -- know that his hortatory style is hard on the heart at times. (And his smugness is also a pain: I have met Bill Maher; I have talked to Bill Maher; and, egad, that ego. But, ultimately, Maher is no more than a comic with an ache to grind.)

Yet, one has to smile at the seriousness of the film -- or, at least, the serious ways the religious see themselves.

Ultimately, "Religulous" does define the ridiculous lengths that religions go to, to provide reason for their existence. (No hate mail, please; it's a holiday season.)

But its failure may be in that it doesn't go far enough. Maher is mischievous, not the mean-spirited missile-launcher he occasionally laughs to be.

Ironic, a comic of so little faith in his source material.

Or is that in the ... Source?

 

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