Saturday, October 04, 2008

A Religulous Experience

Today, I went to see Religulous, the new documentary film starring comedian Bill Maher. It's an examination (and a scathing one) of organized religion, and of the elements of various major faiths of the world.

As a piece of entertainment, I liked it. I laughed a lot; big laughs, small laughs, everything in between.

As a documentary, it's not very good. The movie does actually have a very reasonable point worthy of examination and discussion, but it doesn't really get around to making it until the last five minutes of the movie. It's laughs every minute to that point, and then the scary, operatic music kicks in for five minutes of deathly serious commentary. As I said, it's reasonable. But the tone of the movie doesn't really earn it.

And speaking of tones, Bill Maher's can be off-putting at times. I find him funny, personally. And I happen to agree with a lot of his views (which surely helps with the finding him funny). But his demeanor at times is pretty closed, even harsh. He doesn't seem to make much of an effort to win any hearts and minds among the subjects he interviews in the film, and it seems unlikely to me the assembled product will do so in a potential audience either.

Which is not wholly his fault as a "host," either. The actual assembly of the documentary film strikes me as wrong too, in terms of narrative. The first half of it is devoted to Christianity, pointing out the fairy tale-like nature of the material in the Bible, if one does take it literally (as many do). Later, it segues into a look at other faiths.

It seems to me that, knowing the bulk of the mostly American audience is going to be Christian, the film-as-an-argument would be better served by starting with the other religions. By starting with picking holes in the story of Jesus Christ, it seems to me the vast majority is going to switch off their minds or walk out of the movie altogether. But if you first poke a little fun at Scientology, Mormonism, and Islam, you can sort of "ease" the crowd into things before turning the magnifying glass on Christianity.

But let me come full circle here. Despite my quibbles with the ordering of the film, despite my concerns that Bill Maher will dillute his message because of his demeanor, the film is funny. And given that he's a comedian, I choose to take that as the main element of the movie. I rate it a B.

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