Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Religulous

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What a jerk! That’s all I could think for the first 15 or so minutes of Religulous, the doc that teams up director Larry Charles (Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) and comedian Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. The two funnymen have their sights set on religion here — the title of this documentary is derived from the words “religious” and “ridiculous,” which should be a clear warning shot to anyone sensitive to seeing some sacred cows being tipped. The film follows Maher as he tours the globe, from the Bible Belt to Israel to the Vatican, speaking with religious faithful, their leaders and politicians. And I couldn’t believe what an absolute jerk Maher was willing to be on screen. He’s clearly the smartest guy in the room, but who cares when he’s picking on religious rubes at truck stop chapels?
ReligulousMaher is taking it to world religions and he doesn’t show mercy on the faithful plebes who aren’t as quick-witted as he is. In fact, he dances circles around them so mercilessly, the film teeters on pushing its viewers to feel sympathy for even the most backward religious zealot. He doesn’t bother interviewing levelheaded individuals who can talk sensibly about their faith. He takes it to the crackpots.

I was in awe at how brazenly unsympathetically he was willing to present himself — what a disservice to his cause of bringing down religion. He subjects unsuspecting interviewees and everyday folks to his oversized personality and toys with them for laughs. The one thing Borat has, that Maher does not, is an air of loveable, if pathetic, charm. But Maher doesn’t seem to be looking for friends. The film certainly follows the Michael Moore tradition of a strong on-screen personality using comedic outrage to make a point, but Moore — for all his notoriety —has always had his blue-collar heritage to hang his hat on. Maher looks too pleased with himself to win any empathy points. So the film’s success rests partly on the predictable media attention this hot-topic film will garner, but more than anything else — whether Maher can get enough laughs.

And yet — and yet — as off-putting as I found him at first, Maher’s crusade (or, rather, anti-crusade) eventually evolves into an entertaining satire. As Maher’s cracks and snaps keep coming — even if he’s being a jerk — he’s still making a point. So, so what if Maher sets up a straw man to be burned to the ground? It made me laugh.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Henry N. Giguere

    FOREIGNID: 17503
    Unfortunately this learned (Yale) and egotistical man and his movie will offend a lot of good people one way or another. But why should he care, as long as he makes his “buck”.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 17504
    indeed, and the bucks are coming: the film made the highest weekend box office of all docs this year—it’s already made more than $3.5 million. pretty big bucks in the doc world, but i’d think they’d need to make more than $5 million (the film cost $2.5 million to make) to start feeling truly flush.

  • Thom Phelps

    FOREIGNID: 17505
    I loved the movie and as an atheist agree with most of what Bill had to say. As a filmmaker, though, cinematically Larry Charles should have spent less time shooting Bill Maher’s in close-up. His profile distracts from what Bill’s saying in most of the car driving scenes.
    In my opinion we’ve collectively come to a point where the outrage is gone on this topic, at least among the Christians. Our expectations are that fundamentalist Christians will rise up, protest, boycott and hold candlelight prayer vigils (remember The Last Temptation of Christ?).
    But the truth is they just don’t care.
    Instead, they’re ignoring movies like Religulous or books like “Then Why Do I have Toenails?” and instead are trucking in busloads of students and church congregations to see Ben Stein’s idiotic tripe or Mel Gibson’s gratuitously violent Passion of the Christ.

  • Rich

    FOREIGNID: 17506
    My 2 cents on Religulous.
    Defintiely agree with the basic premise that religion is presently a negative from a Darwinian standpoint. I also laughed a lot….there were no shortage of comedic moments. But the movie taken as a whole was not funny nor was it meant to be. It was a troubling theme.
    What I also found troubling was the unabashed mockery of religious beliefs, however illogical they may be. This film probably didn’t provide any kind of bridge to a less religious world. But it will make a tidy profit and that’s something achievable.
    If Bill had made a film that sympathetically portrayed religious addiction in the same way that one might be sympathetic to another kind of addiction, fewer people would watch it and it stiill wouldn’t be effective at changing people’s beliefs.
    So Bill mocked religion and will make a nice paycheck in the process. Is that a sin?? I don’t know, I’m not religious!