Friday night I got tired of watching BYU play some pretty abysmal football (for at least three of the four quarters), and I stumbled across Bill Maher’s film, “Religulous,” which I had not seen before. Flipping between rabid, blue-clad Cougar fans and Maher’s snarky film was a surreal experience.
I had expected that Maher’s film would be a skeptic’s take on religion, and I guess it was that. He basically went around interviewing religious believers from different faith traditions, from hyper-orthodox Jewish rabbis to fundamentalist Christian truck drivers, and so on.
The film could have been an interesting and humorous glimpse into what people believe and why, but alas, Maher took the cheaper, easier route. First of all, he seemed to go for the lowest common denominator in his interviews. Do truck drivers who meet periodically in a trailer behind a truck stop really represent Evangelical Christians? Does a rabbi who hobknobs with Mahmoud Ahmedinajad represent Judaism in any meaningful way? Not to my mind.
It didn’t help that every clip, every piece of classic rock used as soundtrack, was intended to emphasize the absurdity of each religion. But the worst decision by far was the inclusion of Maher’s comments in his car after each interview, when he ridiculed the people he had just talked to. Unless we’ve been living in a cave–or haven’t been watching the film at all–we already know what Maher thinks of religion and its adherents.
Anyway, I was curious as to how he would deal with Mormonism. Unlike many of the other faiths, Mormonism is not afforded any opportunity to explain its beliefs (not that the PR-obsessed church would have allowed Maher to meet with an apostle). Instead, Maher introduces Mormonism by getting ejected from church property by church security guards (generally, that’s what happens when a film crew shows up on private property). Then he talks to two ex-Mormons (full disclosure: one of them, Tal Bachman, is an old friend of mine) who chuckle nervously as Maher explains some of the more esoteric beliefs of the church while clips from the old–and incredibly crappy and unfair–anti-Mormon film “The God Makers” are flashed across the screen. I suppose it could have been worse. Scientology is treated by a disguised Maher shouting out Scientology teachings about Xenu in a London park while images of a rather deranged-looking, grinning Tom Cruise are shown on screen (to be fair, Tom Cruise seldom looks non-deranged, but that’s beside the point).
The film’s best moments for me are his chats with his mother and sister about his religious upbringing and how they all felt about it. Those discussions are interesting and explain more than the rest of the film why people act and believe the way they do. The difference is that Maher doesn’t treat his mother and sister as if they are idiots.
If I had made this film, I would have asked tough questions and let people explain their beliefs and why they believe without a lot of comment. Maher tells his interviewees, “I’m just here asking questions.” It would have been a much better film had he done so. For example, having a believing Mormon answer questions about Kolob and the Lamanites would have had a lot more impact than Maher snarkily summarizing these beliefs while Ed Decker’s low-rent animation appears on screen. Likewise, having a Scientologist explain Xenu and thetans would have been better than Maher’s attempt to appear even more deluded than Tom Cruise in his park rantings. Did we really need any commentary to realize how repugnant the teachings of Fred Phelps and Yisroel Dovid Weiss are? Is the Creation Museum in Kentucky any less silly because Maher tells us it is? Do we really need superimposed titles to explain how to interpret people’s answers?
But to go back to my original point: it’s one thing to take on religions and their doctrines and dogmas; it’s something entirely different to take on people who, for the most part, are just average people of faith and spend 101 minutes showing how stupid and ignorant everyone is–except Maher.
What could have been a skeptical and funny look at religion turns out to be a film about Bill Maher. I guess it succeeds at that, as long as the objective was to make him seem like a bit of a prick.
Still, it was better than the BYU game.