Review in a Hurry: Beginning and ending in Megiddo, Israel, "the spot where the Christians believe the world will end in the book of Revelation," Bill Maher manages a mind-blowing documentary about religion less blasphemous (and vicious) than you'd expect from the fiery host of HBO's Real Time.
The Bigger Picture: With a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, Maher cuts his own story (and family, for that matter)—as well as snippets of his early, stand-up religious "roasts"—into an investigation into what he believes to be the greatest detriment "to the progress of humanity." Amid hilarious interstitial montages, and a lot of fancy editing, he pokes fun at Mormonism, Scientology, Judaism and Islam. Impossible to cram into one film?
You bet, but he's not attempting to break them all down. Beginning at a trucker's church in Raleigh, N.C., his greatest target is the corruption of Christianity and Catholicism, which he notes has been about "f--king little kids and burning people alive." Maher offers a crash course in biblical history, and tackles televangelists, the antigay evangelical movement and the erroneous notion that our founding fathers intended ours to be a Christian nation. (According to the film, 16 percent of Americans consider themselves nonreligious, making them a larger minority than African-Americans.)
With potshots at the likes of Ted Haggard, Robert Tilton, Jim Baker and Jerry Falwell, Maher travels from Kentucky's Creation Museum to the Vatican Observatory to the Dome on the Rock, his purpose being to promote "doubt" rather than disdain. "The 10 Commandments are the only beliefs we cleave to from the Bronze Age," he notes, in between getting kicked out of the Vatican and shooed away from Salt Lake City's Mormon Temple.
Ripping a page from Zeitgeist: The Movie, Maher draws parallels between the stories of Jesus, Mithra and Horus. He offers the bizarro beliefs of Scientology from a pulpit in London's Hyde Park (where he's got some Wisebloodesque competition).
He interviews the compelling the Vatican's astronomer, the head scientist of the Human Genome Project, a neurotheologist, a fundamentalist politician, a pair of gay Muslim activists, José Luis de Jesús Miranda and the head of a gay-reforming ministry, with hilarious profundity. A segment shot with the "Jesus" of the Orlando, Fla., Holyland attraction leads to a more reflective side of the often inflammatory cable host, while "Jesus" likens explaining God's mysteries to man to be "like trying to explain to an ant how TV works."
The 180—a Second Opinion: Surprisingly, Maher is only occasionally mean-spirited (although he does walk away from an interview with an anti-Zionist rabbi who met with Iran's anti-Israel leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), depending on your point of view. Agnostics and the faithless will rejoice, and believers with a modicum of open-mindedness will be confronted by the less believable aspects of their pet religion.