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Backstage after the taping, Maher changes into black jeans and a black-and-white-striped shirt and emerges for a brief chat before going upstairs to mingle with his guests and writers over cocktails. When I ask if he needs a minute to decompress, he shrugs a negative and says, “I’m the same off as I am on.”
It’s true: The following Monday, casual in jeans and a white shirt in his bungalow on the CBS lot, he’s the same man, minus expletives, that he is on television — affable, smart, relaxed, quick with the one-liners, easy to engage in debate about anything under the sun, and opinionated as hell. It’s the day after the Emmys, and for the 21st time, Maher has come away empty-handed for both comedy series and special. An Internet wag has crowned him the Susan Lucci of the primetime Emmys because he loses so often to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Today, he’s gallant in defeat, but his loss clearly rankles.
“Some of those I didn’t win because there were other good shows,” he says. “But all of them? I think it has to do with Americans not being ready for what I have to say, especially about religion.”
Maher has been hammering away forever at institutionalized faith, but Religulous, which Lionsgate quixotically plans to position as an Oscar contender in the documentary category, raises the bar to a whole new dimension of attack, as you might expect from a movie with Borat director Larry Charles at the helm. The two men had separately been toying with the idea for a movie about religion for a long time, and on paper they make a perfect partnership of iconoclastic irreverence. Religulous follows Maher around rural America and carefully selected foreign parts in search of follies committed in the name of the world’s three great religions.
In Israel, he meets a Jewish inventor of gadgets that slink around the rules for Sabbath observance. In London, he locks horns with a Muslim rapper preaching violence against the West, and goes undercover at Speakers’ Corner as a raving Scientologist in a ratty hat with earflaps.
Back home, he visits an evangelical truck-stop ministry in North Carolina; a Latino reverend who insists he’s Jesus reincarnated; a Holy Land theme park where the crucifixion in all its gory glory is acted out daily. And just to show he’s not only looking for stupids, Maher interviews the devoutly Christian head of the Human Genome Project, a Catholic astronomer and a senior priest at the Vatican. (Charles, on the phone from Italy, where he’s shooting a new film, says the Vatican is “like a Bowery flophouse, but all the people are religious.”) Which would be fine, if any of them were allowed to get a word in edgewise.
Abetted by Charles’ quick-cut editing, Maher sets booby traps for his easy marks, serves up gotcha questions and barely waits for the answers, interrupts his subjects, pummels them with the idiocy of the Old and New testaments, all the while reducing the story of creation to a fairy tale about talking snakes in a lovely garden.
Depending on where you stand on spiritual matters, Religulous is either a timely rational assault on the mad illogic of religious belief and practice in all their forms, or a malicious and juvenile mockumentary that lumps fundamentalism in with more thoughtful religious expression, holds religion responsible for evil without acknowledging the good done in the name of belief or its role as a frame for community, and ends up as reductive as the fundamentalist doctrines it lampoons. That the movie will drive a lot of the faithful up the wall is to be expected. Some protesters showed up at a Toronto International Film Festival screening in September to damn the movie, sight unseen. Maher swears that one or two also asked for his autograph, and he was surprised by a couple of positive reviews in Jewish and Christian magazines. But initial reaction from critics, a decidedly secular bunch on the whole, has been more mixed than it was for Borat even though the movie follows the same format.
“My thesis was,” Charles tells me, “can you create a Saturday-night date movie about religion to compete with Tropic Thunder?”
But where Sacha Baron Cohen played court jester in Borat, as much of a holy fool as his victims, Maher appoints himself their judge and jury — a mantle he willingly assumes.
“You can disagree with someone and also think they’re intelligent,” Maher says. “But there are beliefs that people cling to that I think are incompatible with intelligence. Andrew Sullivan called me a bigot the other night, and that’s not true. Bigotry means you’re prejudiced. I’m not prejudging — I’m judging. I am saying that I believe that if you’re religious, you’ve walled off part of your mind. It happens to you when you’re a child; they force it into you before you’re able to defend yourself. Richard Dawkins [author of the atheist credo The God Delusion] calls it child abuse.”
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