For the life of me, I can’t remember which review I read of this movie that made me want to see it. After I watched this documentary about religion this weekend, I went back to the usual suspects to try to track down the one I so vividly remembered reading. The one that told me this was not a movie that made fun of religious people, but instead one where Maher very respectfully asked interesting and thoughtful questions about why so many people on this planet believe the various things they believe in.
But, I couldn’t find that review, whatever it was. Ebert, Entertainment Weekly — had I read those, I would’ve had more of a clue going into this that it was actually a snarkfest more than an open-minded exploration. My husband snorted when I expressed displeasure at this — it’s a BILL MAHER movie, so what did I expect? But honestly? What I didn’t expect was a Michael Moore movie. And that’s kind of what I got.
In this film, Maher goes around talking to a wide variety of people about religion. Everybody from Christian truckers, to two priests at the Vatican (who I totally want to make Boyfriends of the Week now, by the way — that’s how cool they were), to a scientist who specializes in the fascinating (to me, anyway) field of “neurotheology,” to two ex-Mormons, to a “Jew for Jesus,” etc. etc. And yes, I laughed out loud a LOT during this movie. And I understood the points Maher was trying to make. And he makes a lot of very good ones.
However, just like with Michael Moore’s films, I found that Maher’s good points about religion were way, way overshadowed by the fact he was only pretending to be open-minded and “curious” about the people he was talking to, and as soon as he was out of ear-shot, he let his judgments flow. He would snark at their beliefs behind their backs, substitute fake captions that made people look (and feel, I’m sure, once they watched the film) extremely stupid, and he also very, very carefully selected the people he talked to, making sure their beliefs would fit neatly into his preconceived notions about religion (i.e. that it’s all equally ridiculous).
He didn’t pick, for example, Christians who were thoughtful and questioning of their religion’s dogma and whether or not the Bible should be interpreted literally. Like, say, the numerous Christians who have decided that Creation and evolution don’t make sense when put side-by-side, and have spent quite a bit of time studying both ideas and working out a way the two can coexist in a fairly logical manner.
Instead, Maher focuses on the Christians who think dinosaurs and man coexisted, and, just in case we still don’t get it, repeats his point over and over that their beliefs are completely irrational (not to mention wholly unoriginal, which was actually one of the parts of this film I found the most interesting).
Maher also sabotages his own movie by tossing into the final act a Dutch guy who has created a “religion” around marijuana. The guy had no actual dogma — he essentially just gets stoned and calls his pad a “church.” Maher spends a lot of time with him as though he is actually representative of some type of organized religion. But in reality, it seemed pretty obvious to me that this was just a gimmick to get the film to The Netherlands, where he could track down some Muslims and make fun of their beliefs too. (Why look for Muslims in the Netherlands, you wonder? Because of Theo Van Gogh’s murder: http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2004-11-02-filmmaker-killed_x.htm.)
I dismissed that marijuana church scene just like I dismissed the one in Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine, where Moore tries to demonstrate how violent and idiotic Charlton Heston is by confronting him almost viciously, even though Heston was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was clearly confused and unsteady. That’s not playing fair — that’s playing up.
So, yes, this movie has some interesting things to say about religion. Just like Moore’s movies have had interesting things to say about gun violence, the healthcare system, and etc. And yes, it’s also very, very funny at times.
But the problem I have with movies like this is that as soon as you cross the line from “documentary” to “mockery,” you invalidate your position from my perspective. These movies preach ONLY to the choir — they present the information their intended audience already accepts, and that is as far as they go. Where a reasoned examination of religion might have the power to change or at least open minds, this movie merely has the power to invoke one of two emotions: “right on!” assent or outright fury.
Neither one of these two emotions lends itself well to reasoned discourse.
Disappointing, to say the least. It did lead me to make up a new film genre for this site, though: Snarkumentary. I suppose that is not worth nothing.
Cast: Bill Maher, lots of religious people, some marijuana