"Religulous," the new documentary starring Bill Maher and directed by Larry Charles, doesn't take the time to define its title, but Maher has said elsewhere that it is a combination of "religious" and "ridiculous." By joining the two, the filmmakers have come up with a handy way to underline their preoccupation with the gullibility of true believers.
The film they've produced is a similar combination of uneasily merged elements. Though Maher is known as a comedian, his qualms about religion are serious and sincere. But because he wants to be amusing above all else, he takes his questions not to sober religious thinkers but to the assorted fruits and nuts that populate the fringes of religion just as they do the fringes of atheism. The humor he creates at their expense proves nothing except that dealing from a stacked deck benefits no one but the dealer.
The most interesting thing about "Religulous" is the sobering reservations Maher expresses about organized faith. When he talks about humanity figuring out nuclear weapons before we figured out how to be rational and peaceful, when he mentions religion's power to direct men to destructive courses, even when he groans and says, "It's so shamelessly invented," he raises issues that could stand some genuine thought.
But though he claims to be a seeker, someone who "has to find out" why believers believe, Maher sets out not after answers but cheap laughs that preach, so to speak, to the converted. Rather than talk to Bishop Desmond Tutu -- hey, how much fun would that be? -- he goes out and about, scouring the globe for people whose responses to his qualms will make facile cinema.
"Religulous" uses the gotcha technique that director Charles perfected in "Borat." If people are incautious enough to be interviewed without knowing anything about the interviewer, if they are foolish enough not to recognize how foolish they will look, they have, in effect, signed their own death warrant, agreeing to be mercilessly drawn and quartered by some of the sharpest blades in the business.
Oh, the places Maher and Charles go. Here they are in the Truckers Chapel in Raleigh, N.C., and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., where dinosaurs and humans are shown to be playing together. And then there's the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Fla., where an employee tells them what it's like to play Jesus, and the Growing in Grace Ministry in Miami where Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda insists he is the second coming of Christ. And then . . . but you get the idea.
If you don't, "Religulous" also offers lots of added-value media clips, including biblical epics and the Yiddish-speaking Native Americans of Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles." Excerpts from the programs of televised evangelists are also favored, the more outrageous the better, none more so than a woman insisting to the audience, "You need a Holy Ghost enema."
Yes, some of his interviewees, like Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), should have known better. And Maher does have the nerve to challenge these people on their beliefs. But he also goes on to mock them mercilessly on camera afterward, and his reliance on skewering people who are no match for him in glibness, persuasiveness or even intelligence finally leaves a sour taste.
Decades ago, when Robert F. Kennedy was a Senate panel's crusading counsel and James Hoffa a tougher-than-tough Teamster leader, a series of blistering Washington hearings led people to say that RFK was the only person who could make you feel sorry for Jimmy Hoffa, and the same thing happens here. Only Bill Maher could make you feel sorry for the kinds of believers who, far from being pitiable, wield an enormous amount of power in this country. It's the rest of us we should be feeling sorry for, not them.
"Religulous." MPAA rating: R for some language and sexual material. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. In limited release.