Religulous starts well enough. Stand-up-turned-pundit Bill Maher recalls his confused religious upbringing then establishes himself as a voice for doubt in a marketplace of ideas too crowded with pious certainty. He then sets about talking to the faithful about why he feels the world would be better if they didn't believe. First stop: A chapel for truckers housed in the back of a semi-trailer that becomes the unlikely site of a lively and earnest (if occasionally odd) exchange of ideas.
It's pretty much the last such moment in the film. From there, Maher sets off on a globetrotting journey that stops most frequently wherever the outliers of the world's faiths call home. The pattern is simple: Maher challenges, say, a guy playing Jesus at a religious theme park or an Orthodox Jew who attended Iran's conference on Holocaust denial. He asks provocative questions that the film chops up with the attention deficit disorder approach of an E! True Hollywood Story and accentuates with quick cuts to camp footage from old religious epics or cheap Mormon cartoons. Then it's on to the next target, for yet another variation on, "Would you get a load of this guy?"
Maher makes sure not to miss a major Western religion (or too many minor ones). It's easy to appreciate his punkish commitment to absolute skepticism and hard to swallow the intellectual bankruptcy of the approach. There's probably a better movie in the raw footage of these conversations than in the flatteringly edited final product, which also commits the unpardonable sin of not being especially funny. That Maher often seems as self-righteous as his foils and director Larry Charles (Borat) gooses the gags with lame sound effects doesn't help.
There's a legitimate point buried here: Maher seems genuinely concerned with getting the message out that nothing good comes from the illogic of faith entering into the ought-to-be-rational world of politics. But by the time he gets explicit about this in a final monologue, he's failed to make his case. It's a valid, if shrilly delivered, message that has little to do with the selectively orchestrated freak show preceding it. Maher's too smart to make a movie this dumb.