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.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kind Singles, including the bestselling Kind Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen