I don’t know if Bill Maher would call himself a comedian these days, but it’s fair to say that his roots are in comedy. Religulous, his new film, features at least a couple clips from his stand-up days, including one from The Tonight Show back in the Carson era. A young Maher is riffing on having a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, and on drawing from both traditions. "I would go to confession, but I’d bring a lawyer with me. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned — and I believe you know Mr. Cohen here." Funny!
These days, Maher is still funny about religion, but he’s also angry. He regards religion as a dangerous mass delusion, one that twists otherwise rational, decent people into believing and doing things that are ridiculous and even evil. Now, comedy and anger are not antithetical — quite the opposite. A lot of really great comedy fairly seethes with rage. (I remember reading an interview with John Cleese about why Monty Python ended its run. "We woke up one morning, and we weren’t angry anymore.") But you know what is antithetical to comedy? Earnestness. And that’s where Religulous betrays itself.
But first, more on the comedy. Almost the entire film is given over to Maher’s hunt for absurdity within religion — sort of a feature-length Believers Say the Darnedest Things. He’s not seeking to understand and engage; he’s looking for (and often finding) entertaining exchanges. So when he wants to ask how you can have something like the Trinity in a monotheistic religion like Christianity, he doesn’t sit down with some hoary theologian to discuss the procession of persons. He talks to a guy who plays Jesus at Holyland USA — a guy who thinks he’s scoring points by making an analogy between the Trinity and water, which may, after all, be either solid, liquid, or gas. Maher just keeps his deadpan, and the moment works.
That’s one of the highbrow scenes. There’s plenty of lowbrow, too — some more successful than others. I laughed out loud when a Muslim got annoyed at Maher’s presence within the Dome of the Rock, and the film did a little mock translating: "I don’t think this Jew is funny, and I know comedy. I’ve seen his show; it sucks." And Maher is quick with a quip: Interviewing a Christian minister who came out of Islam but still gets his custom-made suits at a special price from a Muslim tailor, Maher comments, "So you left Islam, became a Christian, and you shop like a Jew." But someone in the editing room should have told Maher to go easy on the clips from old Bible movies — after the first dozen or so, they seem like padding. And there are plenty of places where the comedy feels mean: Interviewing a man who claims that Jesus’ bloodline progressed through Europe and eventually wound up in Puerto Rico, Maher cuts from an antique map of the Old World to a shot of three Peurto Rican hootchie mamas letting it all hang out for the camera. And this is relevant how?
I don’t begrudge Maher his anti-pilgrimage, and I don’t think you should, either. Yes, he’s attacking beliefs that people hold dear, but it’s not like he’s desecrating the Eucharist. (Though there is one religiously themed quasi-softcore scene he could have done without.) For the unbeliever, the manifold forms of religious expression offer plenty of raw comedic material, even surrounding things I happen to believe. (I confess to chuckling when the off-camera voice pitched Christianity as a Hollywood movie involving a space god, a virgin birth that results in a son who’s also him, and a suicide mission.) Mostly, it’s an entertaining run, with Maher coming off as a reasonable, good-natured skeptic who thinks people should be a little more thoughtful about the beliefs that shape their lives. It ain’t Moliere, but neither is it Dane Cook complaining about the Mass. Earnest anger may be the engine that drives Maher’s quest, but you’d never know it to look at him. In comedy, that’s a good thing.
And then comes the end of the film, the great, thudding hammer-stroke of earnestness that undoes so much of what has come before. Maher had an ending. He was standing before the Rude Man in England, marveling at the local tradition of maintaining the image of an erect giant — Maybe a fertility symbol? Maybe an alien carving? — on a hillside. "And they don’t really know why," he observed. "They just do it because they’ve always done it. Isn’t that religion for you? Sometimes you kneel, sometimes you fast, and sometimes you go up on the hill and you cut the grass around the giant space penis." Heavy-handed, but hey, it’s your exit line — go for the gusto.
But no. Suddenly, we’re back where the film began: Meggido, supposed site of Armageddon. And now Maher is talking about the end of the world, and how, thanks to nuclear weapons, religious extremists may now be in a position to bring it about. (In a nasty sleight of hand, he ropes the Christians into this group by talking to folks who are looking forward to the end of the world and the second coming of Christ — which is a long way from wanting to actually launch the missiles.)
And then comes The Speech, abridged here out of sympathy to the reader:
The fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge having key decisions being made by religious people, by irrationalists, by those who would steer the ship of state not by knowledge, but by the equivalent of reading the entrails of a chicken. . . . Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about, and those who preach faith . . . are our intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense. . . . Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. . . . If anyone tells you they know, they just know, what happens when you die, I promise you, you don’t. How can I be so certain? Because I don’t know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not. . . . Grow up or die.
Now it’s my turn to deadpan.
(Content alert: Religulous contains sexual references and bawdy language, and is, it should go without saying, deeply irreverent.)