Bill Maher has had quite a run. Fourteen years have passed since "Politically Incorrect" saved him from Shannon Tweed vehicles and endless stand-up. A Washington meets Hollywood twist on the McLaughlin Group, "PI" proved surprisingly durable for Comedy Central before losing steam (and some bite) on ABC. After ill-timed (if courageous) comments led to the show's cancellation, Maher moved right along to "Real Time" on HBO (tweaking the format by losing the left-right debate and giving more time to Maher's emboldened commentary), where his notoriety, and wonky-smug shtick, hasn't waned.
I watched "PI" regularly for years, drawn to the unscripted and surprisingly informed political exchanges between dustbin celebrities like Jimmie Walker and Casey Kasem. I was also drawn to Maher, whose vehement libertarianism often led discussions into knotty, unfamiliar territory, at least for American television.
But what has always bothered me about Maher is the irreconcilability of his dual, if defining, impulses: to engage seriously and intelligently with politics and morality, yet crap away all nuance, at a moment's whim, for the sake of an easy joke. Rather than one supporting, illuminating, or even tempering the other, he too often just dilutes or degrades both comedy and argument. His latest project, "Religulous," a Larry Charles--directed, gonzo-documentary screed against faith, is similarly self-defeating.
Unlike the protagonist of Charles's last film, "Borat," Maher can't be accused of pulling punches. Traveling the globe from small-town America to Jerusalem and beyond, Maher interviews people of faith with untamed aggression and outright condescension. He makes his objective clear from the start: to expose religion as dangerous, silly, and "detrimental to the progress of humanity." Now and again he makes some noise about trying to understand people of faith, but Bill's got too much to say and debunk to embark on some damned listening tour. "I'm promoting doubt," he admits to a group of Christian men at the teeny-tiny Truckers Chapel in Raleigh, North Carolina. "That's my product."
It's a welcome admission and, as far as I'm concerned, a worthy mission. But too often interviews occur simply to illustrate the varieties of religious dubiousness, and too infrequently surprise or reveal. On occasion, simply for being the more sincere party, an interviewee outclasses Maher (a should-be overmatched theme park Jesus -- an affable actor/believer at "Holy Land Experience" in Orlando, Florida -- never lets Maher trick him into logic), but most of his targets are too easily centered and clobbered, and very few get to finish a thought or mount a defense before Maher pounces and claws (inadvertently prompting audience sympathy for some real crackpots). Charles takes it further, endlessly cutting away to cheap-shot stock footage, then filming after-interview car rides in which he joins Maher in laughing at the fools.
Maher does land some solid punches against such deserving targets as a double-talking "prosperity" minister, an ex-gay minister, and Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, who stammers and soft-pedals around his creationist beliefs until he admits, "You don't have to pass an IQ test to be on the Senate." But for every sharp, on-the-spot rejoinder (Believer: "You don't believe in miracles." Bill: "I'm not ten"), there are recyclables from some once-funny stand-up bit. Forget the King James Bible, he says (wait for it...), "I can find more morality in the Rick James Bible." He's also clearly more comfortable, and theologically sure, when castigating Christians and Jews. His bating of Muslims, in trips to Jerusalem and Amsterdam, yields little, and even results in the film's best comeback, from Mohammed Junas Gaffar. "Bill," he says, almost mimicking Maher's self-satisfied laugh. "You are not so smart."
Maher admires those believers who don't talk like believers, the liberal thinkers who laugh at religious extremism. That he doesn't challenge these people to explain or justify their persistent faith, even though Maher's value system would seem to reject even these measured faithful, proves that he's only interested in assent. And also proves, by not following up with the sort of people that could provide some insight, and perhaps even complicate his blanket intolerance, that he's not really interested in coming to any kind of greater understanding, and that he's not even, as he says to a suspicious congregation, "just asking questions." He'd rather (during a head-scratching stroll through Grand Central Station) prod a neurologist to claim that believers are actually, scientifically, insane in the brain. Gotcha!
But considering Maher's convictions, how could he behave otherwise? Convinced that man, through war-mongering, WMD proliferation, and belief in the afterlife, has made the end times into a self-fulfilling prophecy, there's no space for qualifiers. "Grow up or die," he says, shot imposingly from below, before we cut to a mushroom cloud. Quite like a fundamentalist -- not in belief but in righteousness -- Maher can't help but evangelize. Convinced his neighbors will bring hell upon themselves -- not for lack of belief but because of it -- he and Charles frame the film with a wake-the-fuck-up seriousness that's hard to dismiss. What this has to do with dick jokes, mullets, bitch-slaps, and assless chaps I have no earthly idea. But it can't help.
[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]