Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Religulous reviewed

I saw Religulous, the comedy-documentary about religion starring Bill Maher. The bottom line? Funny.

So coming into this movie, I did not have high expectations. For one thing, I'm not in skepticism for the mocking. I'm not, like, humorless, but I personally don't much care for mocking. If that's the kind of humor you're going for, I'd rather not have any humor at all. The other thing that I did not like about the movie was Bill Maher. I don't really know Bill Maher as a comedian; I've never seen whatever talk show it is that he hosts. But I have heard oblique mentions in the news that makes me dislike his brand of skepticism. Exhibit A: Bill Maher is an antivaxxer. Exhibit B: Bill Maher used dishonest tactics to get interviewees, prompting unflattering comparisons to Expelled! (it is from the director of Borat). He emphasizes that his message is "doubt", but it's important to remember that doubt and skepticism are not the same thing. Skepticism is a careful consideration of the evidence or lack thereof, while doubt is... well, it depends which side you're doubting! Bill Maher is not so much a skeptic as he is a mere doubter.

But the movie was funny. At least, I thought so. And that makes it all better. Really, it does!

Most of the humor seems to come out of the editing. A typical joke was: Bill Maher asks a probing question, interviewee gives an ironic answer, camera zooms in on the interviewee's face as he/she thinks for a moment about how ridiculous they just sounded, camera cuts to something else. Funny, funny, yes. But reflective of any deeper truth? Well, maybe, but the point is that the portrayal is so biased (in the name of comedy, of course) that it's impossible to know for sure.

Other times, the humor just came out of how normal people react to being interviewed. Some folks are shy, some try to get Maher kicked out. A cantheist (the "can" refers to cannabis) freaked out when Maher said his hair was on fire. One anti-zionist rabbi kept on talking and talking, saying, "Let me finish," several times as Maher tried to interrupt him. So funny, I don't remember what the rabbi actually said. Maybe it wasn't important?

So everything I learned about people from the movie, I take with a grain of salt. This is also a good idea with any historical facts given by Maher. (Why, I find that it's good practice to take every atheistic account of history with a grain of salt. I mean, history is a science-like field that can discern truth, not something you can use to come to whatever conclusion is most convenient.) In particular, I noticed he quote mined John Adams, but I'm sure there was much worse stuff that I missed.

But if I thought I wanted a more serious and more careful documentary of religion, Maher proved me wrong at the end. In the last five minutes, Maher attached a one-man rant and montage. Stuff about how religion is causing all this violence, how all these normal people are just in it for the comfort that religion provides, but it comes at a terrible cost, namely, the fundamentalists and extremists, and all the moderates are enabling them, and the fundamentalists believe the end of the world is near, and this very well may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You know, a lot of the stuff that is the rumbling echo in the atheist blogosphere. Man, I don't even agree with all that. And it wasn't funny. He was better when he was funny.

So I guess that I prefer a mocking documentary to a serious one after all. At least, if it's being hosted by Bill Maher.


miller said...

Oh, I just realized that Religulous doesn't actually come out until Friday! I probably saw a pre-screening without realizing it, but I suppose it's also technically possible that I came back in time to write this review.

Asylum Seeker said...

If I remember correctly, it was supposed to be released in a few major cities (New York comes to mind, but I swear there was a second one) on Wednesday. But, I wouldn't rule out time travel yet...

It's a shame that Maher ended the film like that. He should have kept it light-hearted and non-confrontational, while being as entertaining and informative as possible. Since the movie poked fun at religious beliefs of all stripes, it could have pulled this off. But, with the ending you described, whatever could have been learned by a few laughs will be lost when they feel like they are being accused of something unfairly. It just serves as a justification to ignore everything they've just seen.

Then again, Bill Maher isn't really known for his tact, so, not that big of a surprise.

miller said...

Hmm... I saw it on Tuesday.

Some people I talked to liked the ending. They felt it was "getting the message out" so people are aware of the viewpoint. I disagree, but then, I'm really nitpicky.