Bill Maher is going to hell; well, he'd be if he believed in such things, or if there's such a place, governed by a deity who punishes blasphemy or has no sense of humor, or if anyone had the foggiest notion of what happens to us when we croak. It's that not knowing, a lingering sense of doubt that's almost as strong as the faith of the people Maher interviews that fuels this probing, scathing and consistently hilarious documentary.
Religulous is probably the most convincing, brazen and truly funny assault ever mounted on the last third-rail issue in American life, religion, an attack all the more controversial not just for its point but for the guy who's launching it.
Maher's eternally glib, with an innate smugness that's every bit as irritating to some as the blind confidence of believers is to him, and that self-satisfaction will rile the devout while firing up his fans.
Not that objectivity is Job No. 1 here, Maher along with Borat and Curb Your Enthusiasm director Larry Charles set out to pull a "gotcha" on the holy rollers, of various shapes, sizes and inclinations, confronting them about what exactly they think they hear when they "talk to God." The answers range from stunned silence and blathering, to truly passionate and reasoned declarations of faith, from a variety of surprising sources.
At a holy land-themed amusement park, Maher's taken aback by the eloquence of a fully costumed Jesus impersonator, who describes faith in terms of water, malleable and ever changing. Such metaphorical acuteness is missing in the utter twaddle of an Ohio creationist museum curator, who asserts that dinosaurs and men co-existed — a claim that Charles cuts in on with a Flintstones clip. There are tons of similarly funny interjections, during chats with a "reformed homosexual" — who Maher insists he would peg as gay if he ran into him at a bar — an egomaniacal rabbi and a shameless huckster minister with a taste for pricey alligator shoes.
Maher displays a mixture of scorn and incredulity at most of these phonies, but admits he might be swinging below the belt amongst an earnest meeting at truck stop chapel.
Elsewhere, Maher's camera crew gets less than friendly greetings at the Vatican and the Mormon Temple, but receives a fairly gracious tour of some of the holiest spots in Islam. (Though the Buddhists get sidestepped — probably because they tend not to proselytize.)
While most of his interview subjects are slightly dismayed, they appear open and willing, this while confronted — hell, assaulted — about something deeply personal that defines their lives. More often than not Maher shows religion as a sort of benign delusion. And since the real nut jobs wouldn't speak with him, most devastating shots land on targets that are as harmless as inflatable bop bags. When the tone swerves in the last minutes into an apocalyptic screed about the danger of letting people of faith continue to rule the world, it's undercut a bit by the all-merriment that preceded it, but as I'm sure Maher would argue, if you want to save a few souls it doesn't hurt to use a bit of fire and brimstone.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.