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Originally published Friday, October 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

Bill Maher takes no prisoners in "Religulous"

"Religulous" is a sharp, scathing documentary that follows comedian Bill Maher around the world as he questions and debates the faithful.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Movie review 3 stars

"Religulous," with Bill Maher. Directed by Larry Charles. 101 minutes. Rated R for some language and sexual material. Several theaters.

The late comedian Bill Hicks had the perfect response for Christians who got angry about his mockery and menaced him after a show: "So forgive me."

Bill Maher's documentary, "Religulous," doesn't need much forgiveness. It's sharp and outrageously funny enough to keep it from coming off like a self-righteous screed and to keep Maher from looking like the Michael Moore of religion — for the most part. Director Larry Charles, also responsible for the gut-busting "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," follows the comedian to locales around the world where he questions, debates and wises off to real adherents of assorted major faiths.

Rednecks in a trailer church. A Jesus actor in a theme park where dinosaurs and humans coexist. A Puerto Rican televangelist who claims to be the Second Coming of Christ. Muslims. A Jew selling gadgets to circumvent — I said circumvent — Sabbath restrictions. Maher exhibits hilarious nerve with all of them, and ridiculous vintage film clips accentuate the discussions. He doesn't get the pope, but standing outside the Vatican, he asks if it looks like anyplace Jesus would live.

Detractors might accuse Maher of taking cheap shots by picking on obvious nut jobs and idiots, but this is a comedy and not "Frontline." If he's preaching anything, he says, it's doubt.

In fact, it's refreshing to see Maher jump in with both feet, not handicapped with sensitivity that's typically granted regardless of merit. Maher argues that's misplaced now, when fanatics of all stripes want to kill, and modern technology makes it easier for them to do it. Or when they do equal harm by ignoring science: "Can you think of any other principles we still cleave to from the Bronze Age?"

What does detract is rough editing that makes it impossible to tell if footage has been cut manipulatively as it is on "The Daily Show" or just clumsily whacked for length.

Some viewers might find Maher arrogant. But he does appear to know more about the subject than most of the people he encounters. However, if you're going to throw up subtitles that correct people on errors — and even a misspoken word — then you've got to have your own act together. In that context, Maher's references to the book of "Revelations" stand out, when it's actually "Revelation." But now we're talking angels on the head of a pin.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259

or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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