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Holy heresy Maher the agnostic is loosed in a world of worship

"Religulous," a Bill Maher word that starts out religious and ends up ridiculous, is this self-proclaimed agnostic's globe-trotting search for contradiction, hypocrisy and foolishness among the ranks of the faithful, chiefly of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths.

Those who belong to those religions and have thin skins probably should skip this borderline blasphemous free-for-all, in which Maher seeks out believers to pose such questions as whether religion is good, whether the Ten Commandments were the best God could have done, and whether a yearning for the next life could hasten destruction in this one.

Fans of Maher, or anyone with a high tolerance for irreverence, will certainly laugh out loud at one point or another at the absurdity of the religious beliefs highlighted here, from the wealthy minister in a $2,000 suit who explains, "Jesus dressed very well," to the ex-gay man whose insistence on a farewell hug prompts a suggestive quip from the comedian.

But there are squirm-worthy moments, too, as Maher turns his camera on easy targets. In a tiny trailer that houses a truckers' mission, the well-groomed Maher faces down blue-collar guys who haven't got much besides their faith as they voice wildly misinformed interpretations of Scripture and science, including a far-fetched story about the DNA taken from the Shroud of Turin. One man storms out when he realizes that Maher is mocking his beliefs, and it's just uncomfortable all around.

It's much easier to enjoy the childlike agnosticism that prompts Maher to ask "Why is faith good?" when the target is Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, whose near-incoherent verbal stumbles are gleefully mocked by snarky subtitles.

Maher travels from Kentucky's Creation Museum, where dioramas depict dinosaurs and humans together, to the Holy Land in Orlando, where he verbally duels with a theologically well-versed actor who plays Jesus and the only comic relief is a fuming, flouncing public relations person.

The second half of the film loses a bit of steam, perhaps because its subjects are slightly less familiar to us and their religious positions are more extreme and deadly. Maher confronts an anti-Israel rabbi who met with Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies that the Holocaust happened, then challenges Muslim rapper Propa-Gandhi, who defends the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

The positions of these radical fundamentalists will not resonate as much with American audiences as a selection of authentic anti-religion quotes from the founding fathers of the United States.

In his world travels, Maher is thrown out of the Vatican and evicted from Temple Square in Salt Lake City by suit-wearing "Mormon fuzz," as captions helpfully tell us. You expect an excursion into the tenets of modern polygamy, but besides facing jail, those believers probably realize that you can't fight a guy who can intercut your explanation of your beliefs with scenes from "Scarface," "Planet of the Apes," a gay pride parade and a dozen or more cheesy Bible movies.

Some people don't get this treatment because they look funny enough on their own. They include an inventor whose gadgets, like a self-dialing phone and an air-powered wheelchair, allow Orthodox Jews to, as Maher puts it, kind of get around God's prohibition against working on the Sabbath.

There's an obligatory cackle by Tom Cruise and a brief shot of his jump onto Oprah's couch, but no Scientologists speak. Maher himself presents the secret tenets of Scientology by donning a hat and proclaiming its beliefs about alien infestation in London's Hyde Park speakers' corner, and he comes across as just another loony.

Maher doesn't even spare his own family, questioning his elderly mother (who, Maher learned later in life, is Jewish, although her children were raised Catholic) about their beliefs until she finally concedes, "Well, every family is dysfunctional."

Although the film is amusing and cleverly made, the final heavy-handed 10 minutes cast a grim pall. Maher shares his fear that humanity is on a path to destroy the Earth through war and pollution because of, not despite, religion. Maher challenges everyone else's beliefs, but seems hell-bent on maintaining his own.




3 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Bill Maher and a host of mostly unsuspecting people he interviews, ranging from priests, rabbis and ministers to a U.S. senator, scientists and an actor who plays Jesus.

DIRECTOR: Larry Charles

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

RATING: R for language and some sexual themes.

THE LOWDOWN: Bill Maher travels the world to confront the bizarre and arcane underpinnings of Christianity and Islam, and, to a lesser degree, Mormonism and Judaism, with a brief swipe at Scientology.

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