Review: In Regards to Your Movie, ‘Religulous’

To Whom it May Concern: I doubt I’m the first to break it to you, but your film is only going to appeal to one group of people. According to your facts and figures, that group of people comprises 16% of the population.
By  · Published on October 2nd, 2008

To Whom it May Concern:

I doubt I’m the first to break it to you, but your film is only going to appeal to one group of people. According to your facts and figures, that group of people comprises 16% of the population. That’s right. It’s the non-religious. Shocking, I know.

My only evidence for my claim is anecdotal – the two women next to me refuting your every point a little louder than qualifies for under their breath. You’ll be glad to know that the rest of the audience at the screening (sponsored by a Humanist, anti-religion group) was laughing. A lot. You’d be glad to hear, I assume, that the two women walked out because it would give you more press, but they didn’t. They just fell asleep.

Your concept is decent. Take a trip around the world talking to self-proclaimed religious people – random church-goers, visitors at a Bible Land theme park, Jews and Muslims in the actual Bible Land – about why they believe and press hard enough to get good answers or make them look foolish. Spread the wealth around to the major religions and the burgeoning new ones as well to make the overarching argument that religion is dangerous and that mankind will have to move beyond it before we all blow ourselves up.

Unfortunately, your film suffers because it’s less about religion and more about Bill Maher. It’s not a bad idea to inject a personality into the film, but Religulous is so eclipsed by its host that its message struggles to climb out of the darkness. I suppose it’s hard for a good point to be heard over all the snickering and sarcasm.

It’s no surprise that you couldn’t land the big fish of religion, no surprise that they wouldn’t want to talk to Mr. Maher, no surprise that you had to talk to mostly laymen and laywomen just trying to make sense of it all. They end up looking absurd, yes, but it’s mostly at the hands of your editors who use Final Cut Pro like the cinematic equivalent of Photshop, except it’s viable points they’re airbrushing out instead of cellulite. The chop-job is so bad that Michael Moore would wince.

Although Moore would never have the guts to ask a believer why he doesn’t kill himself to reach “a better place.” Get it? Guts? It’s a fat joke.

It’s just too easy. Everyone says, ‘um’ while talking. Cutting immediately afterward to a shot of Maher mocking them back in the safety of his vehicle doesn’t make you right. It makes you an asshole.

If I can get analytical, the reason most of the humor fails is that with one breath, you proclaim the people you’re interviewing should be pitied and then with the next, you mock them. Knocking people off pedestals works well. Shoving people to the curb and then knocking them off the curb? Not so much. Congratulations on picking the low-hanging fruit.

That’s not to say I didn’t laugh. But it’s no surprise that your director also helmed Borat. The same sort of underlying humor-concept is at work with your film except Bill Maher harangues the audience about a dire point at the end instead of shoving Pamela Anderson in a marriage sack. Now that I think about it, though, the film might have worked better if Azamat Bagatov had shoved his balls into Maher’s face. Testiculous. If you want that title for the sequel, hit me up, and we’ll discuss creative rights.

Simply stated, you take on a subject of incredible depth and complexity and throw snarky one-liners and condescending smirks at it. Like throwing darts at the moon. You hit the target, but don’t make much of an impact. To be truly subversive and worthwhile, your film would have had to truly take on an air of doubt and the humility of not knowing. Instead, because it takes on the tone of smug know-it-all-ism it ends up only preaching to the faithless choir.

The irony here is that you use the same sort of unthinking cheerleading that the religious do. Your film is primed to inspire mobs of people to herd out of the theater, smiling and nodding in unison about how great it is to be free-thinking. Next time, you might want to try asking leading thinkers thoughtful questions instead of crash-landing trenchant personal questions at random and then cutting away if they don’t answer in two seconds. Just an idea.

But your film does have a type of courage. A courage that should be applauded. Attacking Christianity, Judaism and Islam with equal strength was notable. Tying those mythologies together with the fringe religions that are too easy for the mainstream to make fun of these days was respectable as well.

Mr. Maher, you just doesn’t wear that courageousness well. For every segment that comes close to being poignant, there’s a moment or comment that sullies it completely – sure to turn off the sincere members of most religions on face. And that’s sad. It’s sad because I agree with you. I agree that electing people that actively want to bring about the End Times to positions where they have access to nuclear weapons is frightening. I agree that groups of people refusing to see evolution as fact because a story about a talking snake is so powerful is frustrating. I agree that the details of each religion’s story are absurd in the light of what science has illuminated, and I’m baffled as to why we haven’t moved further to that enlightenment.

I agree with you, I’m just not sure I want you to be the mouthpiece for what I believe.

Respectfully yours,

Cole Abaius

P.S. – I hope you enjoy the cookies I sent you.

If you believe:

If you don’t:

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.