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Toronto 2008: Bill Maher's 'Religulous' (plus two terrific docs)

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Religulous_l

Religulous_lBill Maher, with his wryly contemptuous hyper-confident gleam, doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who loses sleep about a lot of things, but I’ve sometimes wondered if it bothers him that he isn’t fawned over by the media the way that Jon Stewart is. They’re our two reigning genius dissecters of the American political circus (Stephen Colbert is something else–a postmodern satirist), but Maher, unlike Stewart, puts his personal idiosyncrasies right out there, and his prejudices, too–about sex (which he appears to value more than love), marriage (he’s not a fan), and religion (he’s really not a fan).  Maher is more than happy to be the skunk at the garden party, and a gloriously un-P.C. one at that, and that’s one of the reasons that some people can’t stand him. (I know: A number of them work at EW.)

To me, though, Maher’s merciless honesty, not just about politics but about who he really is, is what makes him such a singular and exciting comic artist. He’s a bombs-away confessional truth-teller, and in Religulous, his winkingly blasphemous detonation of all things holy and scriptural, he’s like Lenny Bruce with an inquiring mind and a video camera.

In this documentary collaboration with Larry Charles, who also directed Borat, Maher travels all over America, and also to Jerusalem and the Vatican, grilling people about their religious faith. He talks to ministers, rabbis, clerics, Middle American true believers, his own mother (who is Jewish–though Maher was raised Catholic), a guy who helps gay men get in touch with their inner straight Christians, and a fellow who plays Jesus at an evangelical theme park.

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Maher has come not to question religious dogma but to bury it. He’s outto burn holes in the Bible and to trash its literal followers–todeclare open season on their contradictions and hypocrisies, heapingridicule upon all they hold dear. Does he take cheap shots? I’m pleasedto report that he does–more than you can count. Yet Maher, who isselling not Atheism but doubt, doesn’t disparage religion with thetoxic misanthropy of, say, his fellow faith-basher ChristopherHitchens. Maher may be merciless, but he’s also curious–that’s whyhe’s such a terrific interviewer–and there’s a divine hilarity to hisbelief that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are fairy tales foradults. In Religulous, Bill Maher is like a sacrilegious rim-shotJoseph Campbell, ferreting out the links between our tall tales of God.

In addition to being funny as…well, hell, Religulous is agalvanizingly topical movie, since Maher’s ultimate concern is theconnection between religion and politics in America today. It’s hisview that anyone who is powerful enough to have his or her finger onthe nuclear button should not be overly eager for the Rapture. Yougot a problem with that? Religulous might be called the first officialmovie jape of the Sarah Palin era.

*I’m not generally in the habit of praising documentaries for being goodfor you, but Food, Inc. is more than a terrific movie–it’s animportant movie, one that nourishes your knowledge of how the worldworks (or, in this case, has started not to work). The movie draws,among other things, upon the muckraking testimony of Michael Pollan(The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) tocreate an essential, disturbing portrait of the industrialization ofwhat we eat. It’s about the way our food has undergone acorporate-chemical change during the last 30 years. The ubiquitoushigh-fructose corn syrup, the flavorless white-meat chicken (and youthought that breast enhancement was just popular for humans), thehomogenized junkification of beef that was pioneered by the fast-foodindustry and then spread beyond those chains to the dailysupermarkets–the movie weaves these phenomena into a larger, sinisternarrative of conglomerate control. Food, Inc. is a movie that’s hard toshake, because days after you’ve seen it, you will find yourself eatingsomething–a hamburger, cereal out of the box, a perfectly round waxenhothouse tomato–and realize that you have virtually no idea what itreally is.

* In the late ’70s and early ’80s, New York really was sin city. It hadStudio 54, it had the mythical sleaze of Times Square, and it hadPlato’s Retreat–the Manhattan sex club for swingers that representedthe ultimate democratization of porno chic. The club didn’t really havea velvet rope policy, so more or less anyone could go (as long as theyshowed up as a heterosexual couple). Yet those that did acquired theaura of hip erotic revolutionaries.

A lot of them, however, were just suburban schlubs, and American Swing,a droll and open-eyed and very shrewdly made doc about the rise andfall of the infamous Plato’s, does justice to theirstrange…normality. The least classy person there was the club’sowner, Larry Levenson, a nudnick who presided over the nightlybacchanals and, by all accounts, helped to make them as friendly–andabout as glamorous–as a bar mitzvah. Levenson emerges as such a scuzzyfigure on the era’s totem pole of dirty-minded ringleaders that hemakes Al Goldstein and Larry Flynt look high-minded, yet his successand descent (the movie doesn’t say enough about his shadier backers)makes for a great story. A lot of Plato’s veterans, now getting on inyears but all matched with fascinating photos from theirif-you-got-it-flaunt-it disco prime, describe exactly what it was liketo be there in this Romper Room of middle-class exhibitionism, with itspetri dish of a swimming pool and its thoroughly disgustinglasagna-and-chicken buffet. Plato’s Retreat was a buffet of bodies, andAmerican Swing catches the moment when our culture could think thattasted good.