"Seinfeld" co-creator Larry Charles directed both Borat and Religulous, two films that star drastically different TV personalities but use similar forms of "gotcha" journalism. Where Borat found humor in a fictitious Kazakhstani journalist and his encounters with unsuspecting Americans, in Religulous, "Real Time" talk-show host and comedian Bill Maher confronts apologists and defenders of major religious faiths. Maher clearly hopes the film's audience will find organized religion as phony and preposterous as Borat's cartoonish Kazakhstan.
At the outset, Maher explains his rationalist skepticism of all religions forms. His mother was Jewish but he was raised Catholic, and in an old "Tonight Show" clip, he quips about bringing a lawyer with him to confession. He disingenuously claims to be exploring the nature of religious faith with an open mind and declares, "I just have to find out," like a muckraker in pursuit of the big story. It's hard to believe he expects to find much insight from a theme-park Jesus.
Instead, Maher uses Religulous to showcase and ambush some of the most extreme religious people he can find, and see if they can deflect facts that confound biblical literalism or Old Testament brutality. Maher unquestionably proves to be a smart, snappy interviewer and tracks down some memorable personalities, such as the organizer of the Creationism Museum, or a Jewish inventor whose wonky gizmos supposedly help observant Jews avoid the strictures against using electricity on the Sabbath.
At times Religulous offers glimpses of the lively but high-minded movie it wants to be, such as Maher's conversation with a Vatican astronomer who believes in science and scoffs at creationism. A peppy montage accompanied by the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" summarizes how the Egyptian god Horus has a biography that's suspiciously similar to Jesus', but came first by at least a millennium.
The film frequently stoops to cheap shots that, frankly, seem beneath Maher and the seriousness of his theme. Religulous can run jokey subtitles underneath unsuspecting interviews, or crosscut between, say, a fashion-plate televangelist and a tricked-out pimp. The plentiful laughs undermine the serious tone of the ending, when Maher demands that the human race outgrow religion lest we bring about an actual Armageddon, accompanied by apocalyptic images and music. It's a powerful sequence, but we can't help but notice that it relies on the same kind of fear-mongering techniques that a manipulative preacher might use. Perhaps that proves that Maher's religious instruction throughout the film wasn't a total loss.