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Religulous: better than I thought

Posted by Andy Welfle on October 6, 2008

Bill Maher, left, and The Dude. Er, a Jesus impersonator

A movie still: Bill Maher, left, and The Dude. Er, a Jesus impersonator

Last time I posted, I expressed concern about Religulous, a pseudo-documentary film by Bill Maher. (Read that post here.) Several commenters told me I should reserve judgment until I see the film. I don’t necessarily think that is required, since the film’ preview really exists for people to pass pre-judgment over any movie, but I did fully intend to see the film no matter what I thought of it.

I went to see it with my friend and co-hort in atheist crimes, Butter (the non-waffle half of our personal blog, ButteredWaffles). And his review of it is very similar to mine. It is posted in entirety (with permission from Butter, of course) below:

Religulous isn’t the boring Jay-Walking skit I feared it might be. It’s much better than that, and I wonder about the critics who say it wasn’t funny. I was laughing several times, as was most of the rest of the crowd, because of the absurdity of the subjects and because of the well-timed jokes that point that absurdity out. The jump cuts and fast editing are there, but they’re not malicious; they just inject context to what are usually one-sided, contextless conversations. And the targets are mostly frauds or idiots who have voluntarily put themselves in the public sphere, by getting a Rev. before their name, or opening a creationism museum, or being a Senator, or running to Iran and meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or running an ex-gay counseling service, or playing Jesus in the public shows at Jesus Land. Or claiming to be the Second Coming of Jesus personally.

There was a little Michael Moore-ish grandstanding, like when he got tossed out of the Vatican for barging in with a camera and wanting to talk to the Pope, but those moments were mostly tongue-in-cheek side jokes (unlike a Moore film, where they carry the weight of the whole polemic). And the über-trendy canted camera angles, like it’s some MTV special where the host is so cool that we’re presumed to want to see camera shots of him talking to some other camera, were just jarring and dumb.

But there’s enough meat there to overshadow the sparse bits of egotism and amateurism. He’ll give subtitles exposing the lies of the opulently dressed megachurch megapastor as the guy speaks; he’ll interview Catholic priests (including the Vatican astronomer) who giggle at the idea of hell and Creation and all the stuff their flock is goaded into taking literally; he’ll get the Senator to equivocate on evolution, he’ll hammer at the Jesus actor, past all the “God-sized hole in your heart” rhetoric, until the guy pulls out Pascal’s Wager; he’ll show you the salesman for the crazy kosher workless wheelchair—and he’ll do it with that affable, I’m-on-your-side schtick that disarms his opponent.

He delivers the goods, and he’s honest enough to speak directly to his target audience at the end, telling you to get off the fence and actively oppose superstition if you’re smart enough to find the preceding hour and a half disturbing. The film is clever enough, and chooses its targets well enough, to be funny even to someone who’s already an atheist and well-versed in the issues and the players in the debate, while still summarizing those issues and players concisely for a moderately intelligent but apathetic fence-sitter. It’s the Michael Moore populist-polemic-documentary genre done right—which really shouldn’t be too hard, when your targets are this pathetically easy to pick apart. I’m glad he did it.

Link to the original post.

I’ll agree with Butter. While my opinion hasn’t changed that Bill Maher is an ass, I will concede that he is a smart and funny ass. It’s reminiscent of a quote from the Big Lebowski:

Walter Sobchak: Am I wrong?
The Dude: No you’re not wrong.
Walter Sobchak: Am I wrong?
The Dude: You’re not wrong Walter. You’re just an asshole.
Walter Sobchak: All right then.

And he has the amazing ability to put someone down without them really being aware of it. Whether that is a good ability or bad is undecided.

There were some points in the film where I thought Bill and the crew took some hits on their credibility for a few laughs. For example, he was interviewing a Muslim imam who said that Islam is not a violent religion. The imam’s cell phone rang, and he took it out of his robe to answer a text message. The Religulous producers showed what they think he was typing on the screen:

> What r ur orders

> Kill the Jew Maher

>LOL

Yeah, it was funny. But critics are going to have a field day with it.

If you haven’t seen it yet, I think you should. It might turn out to be an important film.

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6 Responses to “Religulous: better than I thought”

  1. Andy S. said

    Thanks for the review.

    My neighbors saw the film this past weekend and loved it.

  2. AnalogKid9 said

    Was it so hard to actually see the film before the review?

    I’m glad you revised your review after seeing the movie. I would have had to bludgeon you otherwise. 🙂

    To judge a film by the trailers is the modern equivalent of judging a book by its cover.

    There are far worse marketing campaigns out there.

  3. Butter said

    Except that you can judge a book by its cover–or at least, you can judge what the subject of the book is and form a reasonable expectation of how that subject will be treated.

    There’s a book on my bookshelf called General Chemistry; the cover says it’s the eighth edition, it’s from an academic publisher, and it has a picture of water molecules on the front. I’m pretty sure just from that that it contains an objective overview of basic qualitative and quantitative concepts in organic and inorganic chemistry. It’s possible it’s some po-mo art piece that doesn’t actually contain any chemistry, or maybe a slickly disguised creationist book about the Flood. But probably not. And if it is, the publisher has intentionally deceived me, and presumably I’ll learn of this deceit eventually.

    Now, I can’t judge any nuances of the presentation of the material, or comment on its pedagogical soundness compared to its competitors for first-year college students, without reading the text in detail. But I’m pretty sure neither Andy nor I sliced Religulous that fine in the previous thread, nor claimed to be doing anything other than judging the trailer and other promotional material, and working on a provisional hypothesis. I can’t see any problem with doing that, especially when you’re clear about your error bars.

  4. awelfle said

    Thanks, Butter, you took the words right out of my mouth.

    @AnalogKid9:

    I’m pretty sure I acknowledged within that pre-film post that at that point, I hadn’t yet seen the film. And as Butter says, you can judge a book by its cover, at least a generalized judgment like I made on the film based on the preview.

    So, are you a big Bill Maher fan, or what? What’s it about the film that you are so staunchly defending this film?

  5. Haha, i haven’t even seen Bill Maher’s show i don’t think. Maybe just previews. But isn’t his FACE enough to piss you off? I read that magazine interview and I believe that his friends like him, but his face just SCREAMS, “I’M AN ASSHOLE.”

    I’m actually surprised he didn’t get into more trouble while filming.

  6. Oughtist Tic said

    Fresh from seeing the movie last night, it strikes me that, assholish as Maher’s face might well be, and mean-spirited as his temperment clearly can become, the fact that he can walk into and out of a evangelical trucker church and leave smiles in his wake (except for the behemoth who no doubt recalled his anger management therapy and left the debate early)demonstrates that his schtick is more persuasive than it is patronizing.

    I think it’s pretty obvious that he genuinely cares about the issues; that he knows humour is a much more efficient tool for the job than any analytical exegesis ever will be is a fortunate coincidence in his case.

    For me, perhaps the most challenging aspect of the movie is the extent to which the Roman Catholic Church comes off as by far the most intellectually considerate of the bunch. As an excatholic, those residues of faith which linger in the mysterious networkings of my frontal lobes cause me to take pride that I rejected the more sophisticated cult, and not some mere protestant derivative. But I only fool myself in that sentiment, of course, just as I fool myself in taking pride of my superior ability to deliberate about reality, when I compare myself to the patrons of Holy Land amusement park.

    The danger I see with this movie is also it’s strenght. It will no doubt embolden the non-believers among us to speak up and let ourselves be heard. That we may continue to come off as superior, as we wear the assholish face of atheism, is a quandry we need to struggle with on an ongoing basis. Then again, there’s nothing like a good asshole in the crowd to get the shit flying every once in a while.

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