Let's face it: most documentaries these days don't bother to document anything in an objective, journalistic sense. We can thank Michael Moore for re-conceiving the documentary film as something akin to a sensationalistic, cinematic op-ed piece. If you have something you hate, or something you want to humiliate in as public a way as possible, make a documentary! And this is precisely what Bill Maher does in his new anti-religion film, Religulous.
Maher, who grew up Catholic (with a Jewish mother), loathes religion. This film doesn't make it clear why he hates it so, aside from some comments about how Catholicism "wasn't relevant" to his life as a child. But hate it he does. Religulous is Maher's attempt to sell the idea that religions are the most dangerous threat facing mankind, that "religion must die for mankind to live."
Maher spends the film traveling all over the world, along with Borat director Larry Charles and a small camera crew proficient in the art of "sabotage interview." The first half of the film is mostly focused on evangelical Christians, how they believe in things like a 5,000-year-old earth, etc. Maher takes a trip to the Creation Museum in Hebron, Kentucky, where he interviews creationism guru Ken Ham against the backdrop of animatronic dinosaurs with saddles (for humans to ride on). And he also interviews young-earth evangelical Mark Pryor, a democratic senator from Arkansas who creates some of the funniest moments of the film. To be fair, Maher also interviews Christian evolutionist Francis Collins, but he too comes out looking a bit buffoonish.
Ever the equal-opportunity atheist, Maher spends the second half of the film undermining religions and cults of every shape and size. He goes to Utah and skewers Mormonism, interviews Puerto Rican cult leader Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda (who claims to be the Antichrist), and even gets high with a leader of a religion based around marijuana. He goes to the Vatican and interviews some crazy Catholic priest, and Jerusalem to deconstruct Judaism and Islam. Maher is particularly hard on Islam, offering somewhat surprising pronouncements about the inherent violence and barbarism of that most touchy of all world religions. At moments like these, Maher might actually find allies in conservative Christian circles.
All along the journey, Maher and Charles jazz up the images with achingly sardonic voiceovers and music, and some very clever quick-cut editing (inserting 2 seconds of Charlton Heston-as-Moses at opportune moments, for example). It's stylishly presented, to be sure, but for all its panache, Religulous is ultimately a very predictable movie. It borrows from the usual suspects (Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock) in formatting the agitprop docu-comedy template for this particular crusade, and we can almost see the punchlines coming as a result.
What do you expect to happen when Maher stops at a truck-stop chapel in North Carolina to quiz long-haul truckers about biblical inconsistencies? What else but exploitative ridiculousness can result when Bill "religion is too easy" Maher spends a day in Florida's Holy Land Experience—where the Passion of the Christ is reenacted with cheap props while a Sandi Patty wannabe sings "Via Dolorosa"?