Religulous reviews begin to trickle in.

Religulous reviews begin to trickle in. August 23, 2008

Religulous doesn’t come out until October 3, but it recently played in a couple of theatres near New York and Los Angeles, to qualify for the Academy’s award for Best Documentary Feature, and a few reviews and comments have begun to surface.

Robert Koehler, Variety:

Skeptics unite: You only have to lose your inhibitions. That, in sum, is the underlying message of Bill Maher and Larry Charles’ brilliant, incendiary “Religulous,” in which comedian/talkshow host Maher inquires of the religious faithful and finds them severely wanting. By providing an example to other non-believers, Maher is, um, hell-bent on launching an even more aggressive conversation on the legitimacy of religion than he has on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Sure to be a major talking point in Toronto and destined for tons of free media, docu looks primed for serious numbers in theatrical and vid heaven. . . .

To the film’s credit, Maher never engages in Michael Moore-style gotcha tactics, but rather asks questions that raise more questions, in the form of a Socratic dialogue. To believers expecting a blind hatchet job, this will prove both thought-provoking and a bit disarming; skeptics may be surprised (as Maher is) by the occasionally smart replies to his queries. . . .

Ending minutes, though, will catch auds up short: Suddenly, the laughs die down, and as in his closing monologues on “Real Time,” Maher turns deadly serious with a final statement that will stir raging arguments in theater lobbies. . . .

Lou Lumenick, New York Post:

I feel obliged to report that it rivals “The Aristocrats” as the funniest, and most offensive, documentary ever made. Maher, a former Roman Catholic whose interviewees include his Jewish mother, is in top caustic form as he sets out to expose all forms of faith as scams.

Devin Faraci,

Though funny, smart and often profane, Religulous doesn’t want to send you out of the theater with a smile on your lips. The final moments of the film aren’t laugh out loud funny, but a parade of images of death and destruction. This, Bill Maher says, is what humanity is in for if it doesn’t get rid of the nuerological disorder that is religion. . . .

The basic concept of the film has Maher traveling around the world talking to believers about what they believe, and most importantly why (or how they can believe it, for that matter). From the Holy Land to the Holy Land Experience theme park in Florida, Maher goes where the believers are and engages them on their home turf. That makes a huge difference in how the film feels, as does the fact that he actually confronts them. Religulous is directed by comic genius and Borat helmer Larry Charles, and it would have been easy to do this movie in a similar vein to that one – letting these people dig themselves a ridiculous hole with their own words – but Maher isn’t interested in that. He wants to interact with these people, to confront them with the logic-hating aspects of their faiths and see what they come back with.

That’s where I think the movie succeeds the most, but also one of the main places where detractors will come after it. They’ll say that Maher is looking just to clown these people, but that isn’t the case. He’s more than slightly exasperated with the cop out answers that people give him (to the point where he actually gets kind of excited when a Jesus impersonater explains the parodoxical Holy Trinity by comparing it to the three states of water. It’s bullshit, Maher says, but it’s interesting and new bullshit to him), and this film is supposed to be funny so he’s being funny, but he’s also being fair. He’s asking these people straight, direct questions. In return he’s getting garbage like ‘What if you die and find out you’re wrong?’ . . .

Tom O’Neil, The Envelope:

When I attended a press screening for Bill Maher’s “Religulous” in New York on Tuesday, it struck me like a lightning bolt on the road to the Kodak Theatre via Damascus: yeah, “Religulous” will probably be nominated for best docu at the Oscars — and God help us all after that. . . .

In order to catch on widely like religion itself, what atheism has needed for a long time is a popular preacher to rally ’round. Maher just volunteered for the job that’s been vacant since Madalyn Murray O’Hair vanished in the 1990s (eventually found murdered in 2001). Richard Dawkins has been a fine temporary stand-in, but not flashy like O’Hair. Bill Maher kicks things up a notch. He’s a pop culture hipster who already has a large, anti-establishment flock, and he has a bully pulpit that O’Hair didn’t: his own HBO show plus vast presence across all media. . . .

John Nolte, This Is Dirty Harry’s Place:

Religulous is hosted by Bill Maher who, like Spurlock, travels the world in search of unsuspecting everyday folks who can be selectively and mercilessly edited into boobs, rubes, crazies, and the corrupt. More than three-quarters of the run-time is spent on the fringes of Christianity in places like truck stop chapels, Jews for Jesus gift shops, and Holy Land amusement parks — pretty much anyplace Maher would have the least chance of bumping into someone who could handle the game he’s running, the laziest game played by militant atheists: Biblical gotcha! . . .

Religulous isn’t smart, it’s smart ass. It’s also astonishingly dishonest. A game of Biblical gotcha! is one thing, but positioning the thoroughly debunked link between an ancient Egyptian god and Jesus as historical fact is what you might call the film’s Michael Moore moment — the moment so audaciously dishonest and unfair it undercuts any gains the film might have otherwise enjoyed. There’s Michael Moore catching Charlton Heston off guard, there’s Michael Moore showing the Iraqi people out flying kites, and there’s Bill Maher matter of factly presenting a wild conspiracy – that the Gospels are pretty much plagiarized — as fact. . . .

One comment, for the sake of fairness: Maher is certainly irreligious, but is he, technically speaking, an atheist? Would he, at any rate, define himself that way? I used to watch Politically Incorrect fairly regularly, and I seem to recall him saying, there, that he believed in “God”, or “a god”, though he was extremely vague as to what he might have meant by that. Wikipedia‘s entry on Maher also quotes an interview he did a few years ago, in which he said he was “not an atheist”. I am curious as to whether he repeats or clarifies that claim at any point in this film.

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  • Mr. Maher is without doubt the most overrated celebrity personality we must endure these days. Even his most ardent fans cannot approach the high esteem he has for himself. I gave up watching him years ago – I found it was hard to pay attention to endless sneering from someone who is incapable of seeing how absurd he is on occasion.

    I have no doubt his movie will find a niche and will be hailed as one of the greatest films/documentaries ever made.

  • I’m like you — I’m not sure if Maher is an atheist or not, because he has from time to time mentioned some kind of belief. In 2007, he called himself an “apatheist” on a talk show.

    I wonder if this will be a documentary or more of an “argumentary” like Expelled. In any event, what I’ve heard suggests that Maher’s main focus is on religion as it’s practiced by some people, rather than religion itself, except in the final “sermon” segment in which Maher is said to argue a case against religion.

    I doubt very much that Maher would make a straight-up documentary concerning religious belief itself. He would need to speak with some of religious thought’s leading minds, and I doubt he could hold his own long enough to hold anyone’s interest. I had more than a handful of seminary professors who would not only win any argument with him, they would argue his own position better than he could.

    If Religulous does focus on religious extremists or the more out-there kind of faithful as the one review says, then it will wind likely wind up being a tale of sneer and mockery signifying not much.

  • Bill Maher has time and again claimed to be agnostic. He’s mentioned many times about why is it so hard for people to say “I don’t know”.

  • Anonymous

    One reviewer refers to religion as a “scam”. What could the reviewer mean in this case?
    Curious what peoples’ opinions are.

  • Audrey M

    Once global environmental concerns begin to terrorize and threaten our survival will these people who separate themselves by beliefs in a supreme being, start to come together for their common good.
    As Mel Brooks 2000 year old man says “when people didnt know better they all believed in Phil”
    then one day Phil was hit by lightning – and they concluded, “there is something bigger than Phil!”