Bill Maher Joins a Dubious List


Bill Maher talks to a Jesus figure

Bill Maher talks to a Jesus figure

We all walk around with lists in our head. Daily to-do list. Top-10-songs list. Things-I-want-to-do-before-I-die list. (Mine features “Visit Kathmandu,” “Lose 15 pounds” and “Be world’s best-paid blogger.”) We can’t have everything, but the great thing about lists is their malleability – their potential for revision (“All right—7 pounds”) at a moment’s notice. And so it is that I’ve hammered out a new list of “Most Overrated Films in World History.”

    OK. Maybe not “world history” but “my history,” which admittedly is limited. I avoid blockbusters (and Woody Allen movies) like the plague, so you won’t find “300” or “The Dark Night” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (all movies I’ve heard are overrated) on my list, but you will find a movie that I saw the other night: Bill Maher’s “Religulous.”

      Ostensibly, the film is a travelogue that follows Maher as he interviews the deeply religious around the world – whether it’s at a Christian theme park in Orlando, Fla., or an Amsterdam bar whose patrons are gay Muslims – but Maher does not, as critic David Edelstein suggests, let all his subjects “have their say.” He interrupts them. He cajoles them. He answers for them. The travelogue becomes a monologue, which if you like what Maher is opining – that people of faith are dumb to believe in implausible fictions – is wholly rewarding. Edelstein was so turned on that he found himself murmuring “Amen, brother,” when Maher delivered his final proselytization from a biblical enclave in Israel.

    Edelstein wasn’t alone. In her review of the film, Claudia Puig of USA Today uses such words as “impeccable” and “enlightening,” while Mark Rahner of the Seattle Times leans on compliments like “sharp” and “outrageously funny.” It’s not. And to call “Religulous” a “documentary,” as its film studio does, is to take advantage of the concept. Directed by Larry Charles of “Borat” fame, “Religulous” is a full-frontal mockumentary that – like “Borat” – relies on “gotcha” moments with people who don’t seem seriously enlightened. Some of them deserve the take-down, such as U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, who tells Maher, “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate.”  Moments like that make “Religulous” a film of some note – but to say that the film was worthy of Oscar consideration (which was the word of an L.A. Times movie “insider”) helps push this film into the “Overrated” dungeon. 

    Others on my list from the past 12 months:

    “Caramel”: There’s no there there in this contrived feature about finding love in Beirut. Pretty faces set against the backdrop of a hair salon amount to 95 minutes of superficiality and unconvincing performances. Evidence of overrating: Lauded at Cannes.

    “2 Days in Paris”: Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg play a couple on the edge as they travel through Paris in this pseudo comedy. Angst and neuroses (and clichéd conversations) undermine this attempt at hip filmmaking. Evidence of overrating: 86% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes’ “tomatometer.”

   “The Class”: Another pseudo documentary, this feature film shows a French high-school teacher trying to manage a classroom of students who are often snide and unruly. It’s “Welcome Back, Kotter” set in urban Paris, but it’s also scene after scene of the same kind of give-and-take. Repetition may be good in the classroom, but not as cinematic device. Evidence of overrating: 2009 Oscar finalist for “Best Foreign Language Film.”

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