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Film Review
by J. C. Adamson


Director: Larry Charles
Cast: Bill Maher, and a host of interview subjects, including Dr. Francis Collins, Dr. Andrew Newberg, Steve Burg, Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda, Dr. Dean Hamer, Julie Maher, Kathy Maher

Rating: Good, not great

I was deeply disappointed in Bill Maher's Religulous. Not mad. Not incredulous. Not offended. I was disappointed. To be disappointed, I must have had expectations, right. And I did.

I like Maher; he's one of the smartest comics working today. If I could have a beer with him, I suspect we'd agree on more than ninety percent of our personal views, including religion. So what did I expect? Simply more and better.

Bill Maher, who is certainly not a shallow person, has unfortunately created a shallow film. He has a following that allows him to fill theaters with perhaps millions of people who would never otherwise spend their time on an anti-religious movie. And it's a one-shot opportunity. Many of that group will be unlikely to do it again—not for Maher—not for anyone.

I had hoped that Maher would have been at his comedic best, wittily confronting fundamentalist dogma, and skillfully spearing its exposed vulnerabilities. To be effective, Religulous needed to seduce borderline believers into venturing past their preconceptions, to the point of questioning. If well done, the film could have had some of these folks leaving the theater saying, "You know, he might be right." To achieve that, Maher needed to employ a broader palette of comedic and rhetorical tools.

Unfortunately, the only tool he used is the one implied in the movie's title—ridicule. And his employment of even that tool was ham-fisted. He not only ridiculed Western religion, which justly deserves it, but also made brutalizing fun of the very people he should have been trying to reach—the millions of believers who have serious doubts about the dogma they've been fed all their lives. I suspect that many of those people are leaving theaters angry and offended. On the sidewalks outside the movie houses, they are standing not with their faith shaken, but rather just shaking their heads.

I saw the film in a post-release screening, with a real audience, half-filling a large theater. I wanted to see it that way to experience the audience and its reaction. Early on, they were laughing robustly, well past the punchlines, and over the first lines of the next scenes. By mid-film, though, I could hear setup lines just fine, because the laughter was less spontaneous and engaged. Before the end, some of the laughter was nervous and self-conscious—not really thoughtful, but almost embarrassed.

At the film's end, the crowd applauded reservedly, after an awkward silence. The applause built from a few isolated claps, and faded quickly. The audience seemed to be thinking, but not perhaps what Maher wanted them to be thinking. I suspect some were questioning the validity of what they had just experienced.

So, Bill Maher had one shot at using his wit and humor to move people to reflection and questioning. And he blew it.

His approach has no depth. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the movie. The rest of the content is really more of the same. Maher hits the obvious high points, and never goes below the surface to question false dogma at its second and third levels. But that's what must be done here. Surface ridicule might be effective against lesser political or social dogma. But if religion were vulnerable to that kind of trivial assault, it would have toppled long ago.

Maher deals mostly with the Abrahimic beliefs: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Certainly those are the beliefs that most directly affect his English-speaking primary audience, but they are not all. He spends significant screen time swiping at Scientology, and casts harpoons toward a couple of fringe movements, but never explores Hinduism, Buddhism, or other major beliefs. I suspect he may think, as do many, that Abrahimic beliefs are the most dangerous, but where the goal is to challenge human religious belief, ignoring the belief systems of one-third of humanity is a significant handicap.

Maher seems never to have asked himself why religion has survived the slings and arrows of ridicule, satire, and serious intellectual assault through these many centuries. Humans are not religious just because they have been duped, or are stupid or ignorant. They are religious because something in them responds to religion in profound ways. For Maher to have been effective, he needed to press his scalpel of humor deeper into the tissue of human consciousness. He needed to reach the fundamental inner realms where our psyches host religious thought. "Could humor do that?" you ask. Perhaps only humor can do that for many of us. Humor is effective in changing consciousness precisely because it skirts our intellectual defenses and gets to the core of our understanding.

Exemplifying the shallowness of Religulous are two interviews with prominent scientists. The first and briefest is with Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, who is a standard fixture for journalists who need to trot out a scientist-believer. The second, fairly extended discussion features Dr. Andrew Newberg, Associate Professor of Radiology and Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He is a prominent neurologist, who has studied brain images of people praying and meditating.

In Collins's interview, he says that the gospels are eyewitness accounts, Maher reminds him that probably no one in the gospels ever met the person we call Jesus, and Collins accepts the correction. So Maher just makes Collins look a little foolish, and dismisses him. Collins is a bright guy, is media savvy, and experienced at presenting his arguments in support of belief. Surely Maher could have engaged him more deeply, and comedically deflated a much weightier premise.

The Newberg conversation is even more disturbing to me. Maher spends a fair amount of time with him, but never gets into the central question: what within us makes us prone to believe? Perhaps that isn't funny, but actually the entire Newberg sequence is moderately serious. So, if we're going to depart from comedy, why not get to the heart of the matter for a minute or two. Does neurology give us any clues? We never find out.

Beyond these factual and philosophic failings, there are also cinematic and thematic problems with Maher's effort. I think he needed a bigger team, and a different director. The team could have included some consultants with deeper understanding of philosophical questions. Maher ought to have used religious and philosophic experts, not on screen, and not to write with him or for him, but to challenge him, and to deepen his understanding. Lacking that kind of expertise, he fell into the trap of challenging errant thought only from his own perspective. Effective persuasion requires an approach from the perspective of the intended audience.

There is too much of Bill Maher here. Religulous is really a monologue, with the interview subjects acting mostly as foils, straight men for Maher's punchlines. In typing that last sentence, I realized another failing. There are few female voices in the film, and where they appear, they are typically subjected to the most dismissive of Maher's ridicule. He does spend some time with his sister and his since-deceased mother, but those sequences serve mostly as background for Maher. His mom is cute, but he didn't get much substance from his chat with her.

Instead of standing in the shoes of believers, to understand why they believe, Maher tried to win his arguments with clever editing. He repeatedly cut shots of interviewees at the end of a pause, at the last possible moment, implying that some comment of Maher's had left his subject speechless. The technique didn't work. We knew that he had simply amputated his victim's concluding thought.

Many of these failings are those of the director. Prior to Religulous , Larry Charles's major contribution to the repertoire has been Borat . A wholly different approach was needed for Religulous . Charles's directorial style didn't fit the requirements. He didn't know when to slow the pace, and answer viewers' questions. He cut the film skillfully, but didn't see when that cutting became identifiably dishonest and disrespectful—disrespectful not of the interview subjects, but of the audience.

In Maher's and Charles's joint P.R. appearances, they have come across as topical soul mates, sharing the same perspective on the same philosophy. That didn't serve the film well. Maher needed to be challenged and confronted. He needed the intrusion of another world view, to strengthen his own.

Maher says in the film, and in his publicity appearances, that Religulous is the culmination of decades of reflection on his topic. Well, he shouldn't have rushed so much. After thousands of years of religious dogma, the world could have survived waiting another decade for Maher's statement. He could have spent that time more deeply exploring his own beliefs, and plumbing the depths of others' beliefs, getting closer to the underlying reasons for those beliefs.

I think he could have done that. I think his intellectual wit is especially suited to the task. And I think it badly needs doing. That's why I'm so disappointed.


copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson