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Daily Plastic is a Chicago-based movie blog, a collaboration between Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks, the same pair who brought you the wearable movie tote, the razor-thin pencil pocket, and that joke about aardvarks. If you know the whereabouts of the blue Pontiac Tempest that was towed from the Plastic Parking Lot on the evening of August 7th, 2008, or more importantly if you've recovered the red shoebox that was in its trunk, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Davis was the chief film critic for the late, great Paste Magazine (which lives on now as a website) from 2005 through 2009, and he counts this interview with Claire Denis among his favorite moments. Every once in a while he pops up on Twitter. He's presently sipping puerh in Chicago, even at this hour. Meanwhile, Parks, whose work has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, The Hyde Park Herald, and Paste, is molding unsuspecting, college-aged minds in the aforementioned windy city. Media types are warned to stay clear of his semester-sized field of influence because of the distorting effects that are likely to develop.

The © copyright of all content on Daily Plastic belongs to the respective authors.

Bill Maher outside the Vatican City

Bill Maher has gained a devoted following with his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. His intellectually skeptical approach to politics and other issues, combined with healthy doses of humor, have made him a darling of many. Now he’s decided to take that platform to another level and take on religion. Yes, all religion.

Maher’s thesis is that religion is not only wrong but decidedly harmful, not only for the people who practice it but society as a whole. He argues that the only proper perspective is doubt, and that anyone who claims any certainty on faith is deluded. To clear up that delusion, he hit the road with a film crew in tow to interview people around the world (though mostly in the U.S.) and challenge them to justify their beliefs. Snippets of those interviews make up the bulk of his new documentary.

For someone who celebrates doubt as much as he does, Maher is certainly sure of himself. This reaches its nadir in the movie’s closing minutes when he offers his own sermon of fire and brimstone. Images of the most awful religiously motivated atrocities (a plane flying into the World Trade Center features prominently) intercut with Maher deploring all religions and calling on the atheists of the world to stand up for themselves.

What’s amazing about Maher is that he seems to have forgotten the 20th century. He sounds like one of those late 19th-century thinkers/politicians who assumed that mankind was destined to improve, that progress was inevitable if we could just steer clear of silly superstitions. World War I smashed those utopian notions, and, lest we forget, there wasn’t anything religious about Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.

That’s not to say that religion is blameless in our contemporary society, but Maher spends most of his time setting fire to strawmen. He interviews a guy who says he’s the second coming of Christ. He confronts a televangelist about his $2000 suits and lizard-skin shoes. He tries to get a word in edgewise with a rabbi who finds more in common with Iran’s president than other Jews. Not many religious people would disagree with Maher here, but you get the sense he thinks these wackos are the norm.

When Maher actually tries to argue with “mainstream” people of faith, he picks on, shall we say, the less intellectual among us. He debates redneck truckers about the Bible and questions a Christian knickknack seller about miracles. He visits ridiculous Christian theme parks, interviewing patrons and workers alike.

But even there, Maher doesn’t really want to have a conversation. He wants to dominate and ridicule. I wouldn’t mind if he gave himself the last word, but he wants the first and middle words, too. He consistently interrupts people and cuts them off. Or when he’s not doing that, he uses subtitles to mock what they’re saying. Worst of all, he arbitrarily cuts to cheesy scenes from Biblical epics or random explosions. At one point, Al Pacino in Scarface makes repeated appearances. These are good for a few laughs, but even there the humor feels cheap and forced.

The ironic thing is that Maher sets himself up as an intellectual investigating the claims of religion. But he’s just mimicking the kind of manipulation and obfuscation that TV preachers have been utilizing for decades. If he really wanted to confront the claims of faith, he’d take on people who’ve really thought through and written about these topics. But it’s easier to imitate the worst aspects of Michael Moore and pick on the rubes and unsuspecting.

The film’s greatest sin, though, is that it’s not terribly funny. Of course, preachy arrogance rarely is. I would’ve thought that given all Maher’s travels he would’ve learned that by now. But I guess it’s hard to learn anything when you think you already know it all.

6 Responses to “Religulous

  1. Bob Turnbull says:

    I've been of two minds about both this film and Maher himself for quite awhile. I'm pretty much part of the choir he is preaching to with this movie, but I expect it might be an exercise in frustration to watch.

    He was on The Daily Show this past week (or maybe last week) and he outright stated that the film wasn't about making any statements, but just a vehicle to ask the questions. I had hoped it perhaps would follow along those lines more than it appears to have done.

    That's not to say that some of those people he is interviewing don't deserve to be ridiculed...But just not within the context of what he is framing as an honest questioning of religion.

  2. Robert DAVIS says:

    I agree with most of what J. Robert writes here, but I do think the movie starts well when Maher is funny and inquisitive. With a small group of Christians at a truck stop church service, he's direct but respectful of the people if not their religion. But later he talks to a guy who gets to say about five words while Maher is doing schtick at the man's expense. That scene goes on for an uncomfortably long time, and unfortunately that sort of thing is typical of the last half of the movie. It's not only tedious but embarrassing for people who agree with Maher's general idea and appreciate his effort to peddle doubt.

    The assertion that religion is dangerous really comes out of nowhere in the last few minutes of the movie (along with some spooky music and scary montage). It's cut like a trailer, and it suddenly feels like another movie altogether, tacked on because Maher thought it was an important point to make but didn't take the time to flesh it out properly. In that odd finale, he is making statements, but for most of the movie he's just making jokes. Much of the movie is good natured (and I laughed a lot more than I did at Zack and Miri or How to Lose Friends). But those moments are easily forgotten when the movie turns to lead.

  3. At the risk of coming across as anti-intellectual, Robert ... did you expect anything else? I have no intention of watching the movie, even for free. It's not as if anyone can avoid knowing already, based on his talk shows and his interviews) what Maher is gonna say, how he's gonna say it, and how well-informed it will be.

    Remember when TV's Craig Ferguson kicked Maher off his show for making excuses for child-diddling. We Scots are awesome.

  4. The assertion that religion is dangerous really comes out of nowhere in the last few minutes of the movie (along with some spooky music and scary montage).

    Actually, Rob, I think Maher sets this up from the very introduction. And I at least had a strong sense that he was heading in that direction, though I don't remember the movie well enough to cite specific scenes (besides the opening one in Megiddo). Still, I'll agree I didn't expect the raging sermon Maher actually delivers.

    Victor, I don't know Maher's work very well, since I don't get HBO. Still, I wanted to be fair to the film, like I try to be whenever the lights go down. I didn't expect a masterpiece, but I didn't expect it to be this bad.

    and I laughed a lot more than I did at Zack and Miri or How to Lose Friends

    Talk about setting the bar low. :)

  5. Mike Stemle says:

    It's been my experience that Mr. Maher has a bad habit of putting his foot in his mouth. I can't imagine how awkward it might be to sit through a full-length feature with that.

    I do appreciate you going out of your way to try to give it a fair shake though, J. Robert. This sounds like one of the controversial flicks I'll rent some day just to get a better handle on the radical atheism movement in the US.

  6. Robert DAVIS says:

    By the way, here's an entry for our pronunciation guide: Bill Maher says Religulous is pronounced re-LIJ-yoo-lus, with a soft g, as if you're saying the word "religion" but before you get to "-ion" you switch to "-ulous".

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