Several years ago, I remember standing in line at one of Tulsa's far south side cinemas to buy tickets to see an early screening of Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ." Along the sidewalk, a group of young people were demonstrating against the film's content. It was a good experience: my being able to freely purchase admission to this controversial film while other people around me, disagreeing with its message, expressed their displeasure as well as a deeply held religious conviction.
Bill Maher may be stirring up more of the same with his new film, "Religulous." Mr. Maher, who's never been accused of being a shrinking violet, fired a first salvo simply by giving title to his initial effort in documentary filmmaking. To imagine Maher won't suffer some 'incoming' onto his agnostic turf would be silly. In the film, Bill states forthrightly, "I don't know."
Directed by Larry Charles ("Borat"), the scheme of the film takes a path forged earlier by "Fahrenheit 9/11" from director Michael Moore. Maher travels to many places in this country and others to interrogate his subjects on their firmly held religious beliefs. Many Christians, including Catholics, fundamentalists and Mormons talk up their faith with Bill, as well as Jewish and Islamic believers, both of varied stripes. Maher's list also includes evangelical truckers who pause to worship at a makeshift truck stop church along a freeway. Then there's the man who runs a private ministry with a mission to pray the gayness out of homosexuals. A religious theme park in Orlando is the scene of another lengthy chat between Maher and the man who plays Jesus in the facility's reenactment of the Crucifixion that displays generous amounts of stage blood and tourists who applaud Christ's trek to Golgotha. Bill visits a U.S. Senator for a theological exchange, as well as a former Jew, and now Christian, with a high-end Christian gift shop. Several scenes are shot in the Holy Land, The Vatican and even in southern England.
And where does Bill get it all? From his Jewish mother (now deceased), of course, who damned near steals the show from her son as she and Bill's older sister discuss Bill's religious upbringing in a home mixed with Catholic and Jewish persuasions. Bill has dedicated the film to his acerbic mom.
The last 5 minutes (or so) of the movie, however, aren't funny for anyone. It's when Mr. Maher, himself, gives his homily, preaching a sermon of possible consequences for some attitudes now held across a planet with such frightening technological "advantages."
Whether you want to believe what he says or not(?)---just like anything else, that's up you.
Putting it altogether, "Religulous" is enough to cause one to think Bill Maher just might be a closet Unitarian---the only denomination I didn't see taken to task.
Matt Zaller, who started on Tulsa comedy show Beef Baloney, interviews
Bill Maher about his movie for National Lampoon's "The Zaz Report".