Thursday, February 19, 2009
When I reviewed Kirk Cameron's Fireproof for my school paper, I incurred all sorts of hate mail for being a despicable atheist liberal. Now, in their defense, it was a piece of rank amateurism that took out my hatred on the audience for wildly applauding base misogyny, but let's just let that piece fade into the obscurity where it belongs. The only reason I bring up this point is because at least now I have just a fraction of (circumstantial) evidence that I'm not just a card-carrying heathen, as I have sat through Religulous.
Helmed by Borat director Larry Charles and starring Bill Maher as the "intrepid" interview, Religulous seeks to get to the bottom of what makes everyday people believe in what Maher deems "nonsense." Charles constructs the film around interviews between Maher and a myriad of representatives from the "Big Three:" Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It's a bold move that could have resulted in a little insight into faith, one that didn't make a statement either way but instead focused on what people saw in God.
What we get instead is a 100 minute diatribe against people who would have the audacity to believe, a craftily-edited middle finger to the people kind enough to grant him an interview. Initially, the shtick is kind of funny: Maher visits a small service conducted in a trailer, conversing civilly with a group of Christians who might stereotypically be seen as close-minded and trigger-happy. Maher admits to him that he simply "doesn't know" whether there's a God, but doesn't feel like living life as if there is one. Yeah, he takes a few digs at some Bible stories, but overall there's a respectful tone between both parties.
Later, Maher meets with a televangelist dressed in lavish clothes and gold rings to confront the man on how he consolidates the teachings of Jesus with this garish lifestyle. This target is ripe and deserving of mockery and hard-hitting confrontation, but Maher treats him mainly with kid's gloves. Why does Maher go so easy on the man, especially when he treats many other people in the film as though they're the town idiots.
It doesn't help matters that Maher and Charles so thoroughly edit the film to make themselves look like genius in simplicity as they wade through the sea of morons, the messiahs of science. Most of the people Maher interviews offer up uninformed opinions and generally speak of the Bible as literal truth, and he stops just short of openly insulting them in order to prevent any tussles. When he tries to get into the Vatican and the Mormon Church, he is of course turned down, which he treats with a sort of smug self-validation of his own intelligence. But when Maher interviews actual scientists and intellectuals who are religious -- including the head of the Human Genome Project -- he cuts those interviews rather short. Hmmm...interesting.
I cannot tell a lie, I did laugh a great deal throughout the film. Maher and Charles edit in all sorts of footage to juxtapose with Maher's questions and his subjects' answers, and though the result gets old fast the technique gets a few big laughs, the best of which occurs when a preacher speaks of how, when a boy said he'd kill himself for a woman he loved, the preacher told him to love God that way instead. The scene promptly cuts to a terrorist driving a van into a convoy and blowing it up. Extreme gallows humor, yes, but damn it that's a pretty good dig.
The rest, however, is just preaching to the choir. An interview with a theme park Jesus offers up a surprising bit of insight when the man explains how God can be the Trinity by comparing Him to water and how it can exist in three stage: solid, liquid, and gas. It's so good even Maher has to cut away to an admission of this, albeit it in a van after the fact rather than to the man's face. At a certain point in the film, it becomes readily apparent that, when backed into a corner, Maher spits out the exact same rants on "talking snakes" and Jonah and the whale, ironically adhering to the same dogmatic empty-headedness for which he mocks his targets.