Bill Maher mocks, but makes more than a mockumentary in “Religulous.”

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Bill Maher's new documentary, “Religulous,” is mockingly funny, but it shouldn't be confused with a mockumentary. It's not “Spinal Tap.” Neither is it, as a disparaging review in the Faith section of The Washington Post would have it, a wannabe “Borat.”

“Religulous,” like “Borat,” may have hired Larry Charles to direct, and Maher does travel around like Sacha Baron Cohen to interview the hapless. But “Religulous” is something different, a road show for a comedian who's developed an act about a subject he actually seems to feel strongly about, a testy topic others also feel very strongly about.

“Religulous” is, as an exploration of how faith manifests itself these days, not simply funny but uncomfortably funny. There's no Borat idiot figure to diffuse the tension when Maher, host of HBO's “Real Time,” offers frank and insensitive opinions to the unsuspecting faithful, no matter how frank and insensitive, or how faithful. Even when Maher travels to a trailer church at a Southern truck stop, where a man who weighs at least 300 pounds starts shaking his fist over Maher's lack of tact.

“I'm just asking questions,” Maher pleads, which is true, even though he seems to protest too much. Most of the interviewees are easy targets; Maher barely needs to reach for the comedy.

There are the Jewish convert to Christianity, the imam with Led Zeppelin's song “Kashmir” for a ring tone, the guy who plays Jesus at a Christian theme park and the guy who really thinks he's Jesus with a few thousand followers to prove it. “Religulous” inflects these encounters with Maher's insults, visual jokes and even stuff Maher, not one to leave a laugh lying on the floor, has made up. He practically dares detractors to get too upset, but also sabotages a late attempt to draw serious conclusions. It won't be difficult for those critics who try to poke holes in Maher's argument, or accuse him of overreacting. Christians, for example, have long been able to explain why they don't simply kill themselves to get to heaven faster. But watching the comedian puff on a joint while interviewing the leader of a marijuana church in Amsterdam is so silly it would hopefully calm any people who get upset at the rest of the movie.

What sustains “Religulous” through its highs and lows is its novelty. This level of irreverence, especially directed at the reverent, is a rarity in media even near the mainstream. There will be people who bemoan the movie's lack of balance and perspective, but Maher's a comedian, not a philosopher. There are some people who find the sight of a vice-presidential candidate receiving blessings from witchcraft very normal, and some who find it very scary. Thankfully for the latter group they have someone with Maher's talent who can help them find the humor in such interesting times. (R) 101 min. S




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