Bill Maher, with his wryly contemptuous gleam (a look that says, to almost everything, ''You've got to be kidding me!''), is only too happy to be the skunk at the garden party. That's one reason some folks can't stand him. But to me it's Maher's prickly honesty that has always made him an electrifying comic artist. Unlike his fellow political jester Jon Stewart, Maher puts his idiosyncrasies right out there, even when they tick people off his feelings about drugs, for instance (he's a big fan), or marriage (not a fan), or religion (really not a fan). He's a bombs-away provocateur, and in Religulous, Maher's blasphemous detonation of all things holy and scriptural, he doesn’t really pretend to play fair. He's like Lenny Bruce with an inquiring mind and a video camera.
In this documentary collaboration with Borat director Larry Charles, Maher travels across America, as well as to Jerusalem and the Vatican and the Netherlands, grilling people about their religious faith. He talks to wealthy ministers in lizard-skin shoes, egomaniacal rabbis, a fellow who attempts to get gay men ''back in touch'' with the straight Christian inside, a guy who plays Jesus at an evangelical theme park, and his own mother (who was Jewish though the comedian was raised Catholic). Does Maher take cheap shots? More than you can count. (Some of them, I have to say, are hilarious.) If you believe, as I do, that religion has been the prime civilizing force in our world, then Religulous may on some level be indefensible. But that's why I'm glad Maher made it. He's scathing, but also curious, and as mischievous an interrogator as Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat. Talking to a melting pot of the faithful, Maher worms his way into the niggling contradictions of our cherished belief systems. There's a ticklish, childlike logical glee to his view that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are fairy tales for adults. Religulous isn't an attack upon God but on the vain, deluded things human beings say and do in His name.
The movie is funny as...well, hell. It's also galvanizingly topical, since Maher’s view is that anyone who is powerful enough to have his or her finger on the nuclear button should not be overly eager for the Rapture. Religulous emerges as the first movie jape of the Sarah Palin era. It's a film that's destined to make a lot of people mad, but Maher, for all his showy atheistic ''doubt,'' isn't just trying to crucify religion he truly wants to know what makes it tick. He leaves no stone tablet unturned. A–