The movie, despite being directed by the guru of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Larry Charles, offers few laughs and even less insight. Had Maher and Charles played more of the interview with the neurologist who studies ‘the brain on God’ or found notable atheist intellectuals like Richard Dawkins to talk to, perhaps the movie would’ve achieved a better contrast between the rational and the irrational. Instead, we keep coming back to an interview with a Dutch pot smoker. Maher barely glances at the social and historical forces that keep people bound to the religion they grew up in, and dismisses with jokes the very serious sense of self-worth provided by spiritualism, both religious and otherwise.
In the selection of interview subjects and the relative weight given to the interviews, Religulous comes up short. For example, I would’ve liked to see more of the interview with the Catholic priest at the Vatican who openly admitted that the church’s teachings were in contradiction with the teachings of Jesus. His ability to laugh at his own dogma contradicted Maher’s main point, which is that religion is inflexible and uncritical. Perhaps given a greater amount of time, Maher could’ve probed how exactly he reconciles his views. Instead, we get more interviews with nutballs to underline that obsession with endtimes prophecies will lead inevitably to nuclear war.
This point was made far better in the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There (and whose sequence on near-Eastern gods, like Horus and Mithra, who have similar biographies to Jesus, was blatantly cribbed by Religulous*). While Maher tries to make the movie personal by introducing details of his Jewish/Catholic upbringing, it lacks the same dramatic force that The God Who Wasn’t There‘s Brian Flemming, a former evangelical, generates by questioning all he was taught to believe. (*See UPDATE below.)
Religulous does have a few things going for it. Maher’s quick-wittedness is always a pleasure and the eloquence he displays weekly in his “New Rules” commentaries on his show manifests itself in the voiceovers in this film. The movie makes clever use of stock footage and movie clips intercut into the interviews in true Soviet montage theory fashion. I look forward to the outtakes that are sure to be on the DVD which will probably give us more of Maher’s wit as well as a more complete perspective from the interview subjects.
UPDATE: I got a reaction from Brian Flemming via e-mail. He doesn’t mind that they used his ideas and techniques:
No, haven’t seen it. I’m on location in Montana and it’s literally not playing within hundreds of miles of here according to Moviefone. Wish it were.
I do know about the use of the old Jesus movies because the producer called me a year or so ago and asked me where he could find them. (I kinda know Bill Maher through a mutual friend and she gave him a The God Who Wasn’t There DVD as a birthday gift, figuring he would be into it. I imagine Bill asked his producer to track down the footage.) I was happy to help him.
If Bill Maher and Larry Charles somehow made The God Who Wasn’t There, only funnier, well, more power to them. I’ve been stealing ideas from Errol Morris (including the ironic use of old movies) for years, so I can’t complain.